Quite simply, they’re too small.
Imagine the ideal nuclear family- let’s name them the Smiths. Mr. Smith and Mrs. Smith both work in good, professional jobs in a major metropolitan city. They live in the suburbs, in a nice four-bedroom house. The two kids, Sally and Jake, study hard and plan on going to college after high school. Everything’s fine, right?
Maybe it is fine, if not ideal. This is not Atavism’s picture of human flourishing, but for many families this status quo seems perfectly fine. Maybe Mrs. Smith hates her boss, and maybe Mr. Smith’s eyes have been wandering over to his new co-worker, and maybe one of the kids is having issues with bullies at school, but hey, nobody should expect a perfect life, right? This is as good as we have any right to expect, and for the most part it’s fine.
Fine, that is, until something goes wrong. That’s the key here: the fragility of the nuclear family. If either breadwinner loses his or her job, the family is thrown into an economic crisis. If someone gets seriously ill, the other members of the family are stretched to the limit to care for him or her. If someone dies, the family is permanently, irreparably broken. One member’s emotional problems inevitably affect everyone. Housework can be spread between the members, but everyone’s already busy doing their own things, and there are some tasks that nobody likes doing or is really very good at.
In short, nuclear families are too small to effectively spread risk, and too small to effectively reap the benefits of economies of scale in consumption.
In a larger community group, work and risk can be spread out more broadly.
Imagine a scenario where Mr. Smith and his neighbor, Mr. Jones, lose their jobs at close to the same time. Both of their families are in danger of missing mortgage payments and losing their houses. Instead of resigning themselves, however, let’s imagine that they embark on a bold plan and move their families into the same house. Mr. And Mrs. Jones take the Smith’s guest room, which they rarely used anyways. The kids have to double-up and share bedrooms, which they complain about for a while, but which is probably good for their social development in the long run. The two families split the mortgage payment and the bills, allowing them to maintain the same quality of life as they had before.If someone gets sick, there are twice as many people around to help out and pick up the slack.
The new Smith-Jones household would reap other benefits as well. There are significant economies of scale when it comes to homemaking- cooking for two is no harder than cooking for one, and cooking for eight isn’t much harder than cooking for four. So, the new, combined household enjoys more home-cooked meals with less work from any individual parent. With twice as many family members, they now have twice as many specialities, as well. Maybe Mr. Smith is great with cars, and can easily keep both families’ fleets in good working order. They don’t need as many cars, either, for that matter, so they shave more money off of their monthly expenditures that way. Mrs. Jones has a green thumb, and keeps a garden that provides more fresh herbs and tomatoes than even eight people can eat.
Socially, the children now have more playmates, study-mates, and friends to socialize with, which helps them to learn to share and grow into helpful, caring adults. And the adults have friends around now, too. Now Mr. Smith always has a friend in the house to watch football with, and Mrs. Jones always has Mrs. Smith to talk about her day with. Sure, there are more personality clashes, as well, but interpersonal issues shouldn’t be viewed as anathema: instead, they can be viewed as opportunities to grow, compromise, and grow closer as a group. It’s only because we’ve become normalized to atomistic family units that we feel that we have need to have everything our own way: in reality, we’re happier and more fulfilled when we’re not getting everything our own way, and are living harmoniously with a group.
Corporate commercialism reinforces the normality of the atomistic family: the inefficiency of each group of three to five people buying all of the things for themselves that they could easily share among larger groups is great for the bottom line. Consider just one example: outdoor grills. Outdoor grills are great, but most families use them fairly rarely, and when they do use them, they can grill enough food for eight people in only slightly more time than they could grill for four. The point is, two, three, or four families could easily share a grill. But in a community of atomized nuclear families, every family has to have their own. That means more grills are sold, and more wealth is transferred from the working classes to the capitalist classes who own the grill companies.
And we'd all probably prefer sharing grills, anyway. Consider the last cookout you went to: probably, whoever was manning the grill was happy to grill for a crowd, and probably they weren't really grilling alone - instead, they were probably surrounded by friends talking to them and pitching in with the cooking. That's the kind of socialization that we all flourish under. With our separate grills and our separate kitchens, we forestall occassions for socializing, in a a self-perpetuating cycle. Our lack of robust social lives causes frustrated desires, which provides corporations with more opportunities to sell us things that pretend to fill the void, but which actually separate us more and more. We spend more money on gadgets that claim to help us save time but don't, instead of finding ways to work together. We spend more money on entertainment to fool ourselves into thinking we’re happy, and end up spending more and more time watching television alone.
But even if you buy into the benefits, this communal living idea probably sounds like a fantasy, so deeply is the atomized family baked into our culture. And it kind of is: in some states, at least, such a living situation would be illegal, as a result of laws passed to decrease numbers of extended immigrant groups from sharing homes together to keep their expenses down. But throughout history, shared living spaces have been common in many contexts. Why is it so unthinkable now?
What's Wrong With Families?
by Jackson Lay
August 3, 2014
We all wish we were as happy as families in stock photographs look. But we need to realize that they're a fantasy, and consider how the atomization of families itself leads to inefficiensies.
Everything's fine for the Smiths... until it's not.