Will the Nuclear Family Die Out?

By: Carly Stern
Appearing in: Ozy | The Daily Dose

The nuclear family — where a father, mother and child live in one household — was crowned the mainstream gold standard since the post World War II boom. American sitcoms like I Love Lucy and Leave It to Beaver showed the viewing public what an idealized American family should look like. Fast forward to the 2000s, and the sitcom Modern Family is probably closer to a millennial’s reality.

The term nuclear family didn’t surface until 1925, and it comes from the word nucleus — Latin for “core.” The idea is that the family forms a tiny nuclear of its own, standing apart from others. But research suggests this kind of family arrangement is disappearing — and rapidly….

In 2018, roughly the same number of nuclear families existed as in 1984 — when the U.S. population was 27 percent smaller.

That’s according to research released last October by Apartment List, an online platform for renters. The report analyzed data from 50 years of the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey. It found that there are more than 1 million fewer nuclear households nationwide than there were in 2007 (Apartment List characterized a nuclear family as consisting of two married parents and at least one child). In comparison, other types of family arrangements — like living with immediate family plus relatives or nonrelated housemates — grew overall compared to 1980 levels.

While 42 percent of all American households were nuclear families 50 years ago, today they represent just 22 percent, a decline of nearly half. The report points to lower marriage and fertility rates that create fewer nuclear families altogether, the prevalence of co-living with nonnuclear housemates and surging housing costs….

But some experts suggest that Americans’ fond societal memories of this kind of family is a bit fuzzy to start. We’ve regarded the nuclear family arrangement as a deeply entrenched status quo yet it was an outlier until the 1950s, notes Joel Kotkin, a presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University.

It’s also important to look at a nuclear family dip through the lens of broader demographic changes, says Kotkin. The number of aging Americans is exploding. Older adults who had traditional family units before could now be divorced or widowed, removing them from the nuclear family category. Millennials are also starting families and buying homes later than previous generations. In Kotkin’s eyes, breaking down this data by age to focus on those between 35 and 44 would tell a fuller story — as would reassessing the status of the nuclear family when the millennial bulge hits that age range. “It’s important to understand that this is a moving target,” Kotkin says.

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