For a time, it all seemed to work. From 1950 to 1965, divorce rates dropped, fertility rates rose, and the American nuclear family seemed to be in wonderful shape. And most people seemed prosperous and happy. In these years, a kind of cult formed around this type of family—what McCall’s, the leading women’s magazine of the day, called “togetherness.” Healthy people lived in two-parent families. In a 1957 survey, more than half of the respondents said that unmarried people were “sick,” “immoral,” or “neurotic.”
During this period, a certain family ideal became engraved in our minds: a married couple with 2.5 kids. When we think of the American family, many of us still revert to this ideal. When we have debates about how to strengthen the family, we are thinking of the two-parent nuclear family, with one or two kids, probably living in some detached family home on some suburban street. We take it as the norm, even though this wasn’t the way most humans lived during the tens of thousands of years before 1950, and it isn’t the way most humans have lived during the 55 years since 1965.
Today, only a minority of American households are traditional two-parent nuclear families and only one-third of American individuals live in this kind of family. That 1950–65 window was not normal. It was a freakish historical moment when all of society conspired, wittingly and not, to obscure the essential fragility of the nuclear family.
Many, though not all, McMansions are located in suburban communities. From the beginning of suburbs in United States, one emphasis has been on the raising of successful children. This could include wanting to stay away from the big city and its problems (historian Robert Fishman argues this was behind the efforts of Englishman William Wilberforce in moving his family out of London) as well as developing a pervasive ideology that suburban life with its single-family homes, safety, schools, and proximity to nature as the best place to raise children (attested to in numerous studies including The Levittowners).
As part of the suburban landscape, the McMansion is then part of the goal of raising children. Young children may be less interested in the home’s status and ability to broadcast a message to neighbors but the homeowners hope they use and benefit from the safe, private space that can both host time with others (family, friends) and provide space to be alone. In addition to the benefits of the school districts and communities in which the suburban McMansions are located, those with the means to purchase and maintain a McMansion also likely have the resources to put their children in extra activities or visit places or provide lots of stuff at home.
In this suburban world, women have traditionally been responsible for child care and ensuring the success of children. Think of the typical image of the 1950s suburban family: father goes off in the morning to a corporate job and returns in the evening to be served or doted on by his family. The wife takes care of the children and all the household duties with little help from the father. And even in today’s world with more attention from fathers to caring for children and household duties, children are often still the responsibility of mothers.
So if McMansions, single-family homes devoted to nuclear family life, are often nested within suburbs, also devoted to nuclear families and children, and caring for children and family often falls to women, then one of the primary social roles of the McMansion is gendered. The large home might be a status symbol as well as an attempt to get the most house for the money but it is certainly a space intended to grow successful children.
An article discussing changes in American household arrangements includes this graph:
A summary of the data:
It all represents an increasing distance from the nuclear-family structure considered traditional for decades. The changes solidify shifts that have been mounting since then, erasing the notion of one dominant family type. In the early 1960s, two-thirds of children were raised in male-breadwinner, married-couple families. By contrast, today there is no one family-and-work arrangement that encompasses the majority of children, demographers say.
“That dominant model declined, but it’s not like it was replaced by one thing,” says Philip Cohen, professor of sociology at the University of Maryland. “It was replaced by a peacock’s tail, a plethora of different arrangements.”
The graph is most effective at showing the biggest change: the decline of the “mother-father married, father only earner” group over nearly six decades. Two other categories have significant increases – married and dual earners, single mother – while the five categories at the bottom involve relatively fewer households.
The graph is unusually skinny from left to right and this helps emphasize the straight lines up or down over time. Would a wider x-axis show some more variation over time or are the trends always pretty consistent?
The colors are a little hard to distinguish. I am not usually in favor of dotted lines and so on but this might be an opportunity to differentiate between trend lines.
Just thinking about other graph options, a pie chart for each time period might also communicate the big change well (though the smaller categories might not show up as well) or a clustered bar graph with the two years side to side could show the relative changes for each group.
In sum, graphing significant social change is not necessarily easy and this format clearly communicates a big change.
The nuclear family, religious fealty, and national pride—family, God, and country—are a holy trinity of American traditionalism. The fact that allegiance to all three is in precipitous decline tells us something important about the evolution of the American identity…
But it looks like something bigger is going on. Millennials and Gen Z are not only unlikely to call themselves Protestants and patriots, but also less likely to call themselves Democrats or Republicans. They seem most comfortable with unaffiliation, even anti-affiliation. They are less likely than preceding generations to identify as “environmentalists,” less likely to be loyal to specific brands, and less likely to trust authorities, or companies, or institutions. Less than one-third of them say they have “a lot of confidence” in unions, or Silicon Valley, or the federal government, or the news, or the justice system. And don’t even get them started on the banks...
The older working-class men in the Edin, Nelson, et al paper desperately want meaning in their lives, but they lack the social structures that have historically been the surest vehicles for meaning-making. They want to be fathers without nuclear families. They want spirituality without organized religion. They want psychic empowerment from work in an economy that has reduced their economic power. They want freedom from pain and misery at a time when the pharmaceutical solutions to those maladies are addictive and deadly. They want the same pride and esteem and belonging that people have always wanted.
The ends of Millennials and Gen-Z are similarly traditional. The NBC/WSJ poll found that, for all their institutional skepticism, this group was more likely than Gen-Xers to value “community involvement” and more likely than all older groups to prize “tolerance for others.” This is not the picture of a generation that has fallen into hopelessness, but rather a group that is focused on building solidarity with other victims of economic and social injustice. Younger generations have been the force behind equality movements like #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, #AbolishICE, and Medicare for All, not only because they’re liberal, and not only because they have the technological savvy to organize across the Internet, but also because their experience in this economy makes them exquisitely sensitive to institutional abuses of power, and doubly eager to correct it. What Americans young and old are abandoning is not so much the promise of family, faith, and national pride, but the trust that America’s existing institutions can be relied on to provide for them.
My first thought: I wonder if these three values have been consistent throughout American history or are more particular to the postwar era. It was in the prosperity of roughly 15-20 years after World War II that Americans became the most religious, the nuclear family became the ideal, and America saw itself as opposed to communism and the Soviet Union. Additionally, a number of societal institutions were relatively strong and well-regarded. Prior to this era, would the same values have held and/or would others have been in the top three? For example, I could imagine making a case for individualism as a core American value from the beginning. This would, to some degree, be in opposition to all three of God, country, and family which require loyalty to larger groups or beings.
My second thought: what comes next in a trinity of American values? Would something like self, community, and success work?
Asana said it doesn’t collect data on the various “personal-use cases” its software is put toward. But Joshua Zerkel, the company’s head of global community, says that in talking with people about how they use the product, he hears many say it comes in handy for nonbusiness purposes, such as planning a wedding or a move. When asked how Asana might be designed differently if it were intended for personal use, he said, “I don’t know that that much would actually change.”
“We think of Trello as a tool you can use across work and life,” says Stella Garber, the company’s head of marketing. “The example we had on our homepage for a long time was a kitchen remodel. On our mobile app the example was a Hawaiian vacation. We know humans have a lot of things they need organized, not just what they have at work.” (Slack declined to share any information about how people use its software, and Atlassian, which owns Jira, did not respond to a similar request.)…
Mazmanian says that these programs might be of particular value to households with two working parents, an arrangement that more children grow up with now, compared with a few decades ago. Without one adult in charge of the professional domain and one in charge of the domestic domain, there’s more coordination of who’s in charge of what—which is something productivity tools can assist with.
Perhaps the desire to streamline home life is also a product of how much employers ask of today’s knowledge workers. “I see the use of business software within households as an effort to cope with feeling too stretched at work,” says Erin Kelly, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and a co-author of the forthcoming book Overload: How Good Jobs Went Bad and What We Can Do About It. She says that the “escalating demands” of many white-collar jobs leave workers (parents or not) increasingly frazzled and worn out—so the same tools that systematize their workdays might appeal as a way to cut down on the time they spend organizing life at home.
There are lots of potential trends converging here including changing labor conditions, changing family life, the rise of productivity software, and the ubiquity of smartphones.
On one hand, this does not seem like a problem at all. Humans have a tendency to use all sorts of mediums in distributed cognition where we can offload our individual responsibility to a helping device or person. Think of making a shopping list: instead of having to spend the energy memorizing a list in our own mind, we write down the items on a piece of paper that we can then trust to have a record of what we were thinking. This new software takes advantage of new efficiencies and new devices to do something humans are used to doing.
On the other hand, the article suggests this software could harm authentic or idealized family life by turning it more into a business or organization rather than a loving group. What happens when partners or parents and children primarily communicate through this software? What if family life only becomes a set of tasks to accomplish (with helpful or annoying reminders along the way)? Where does the blending of work and home life end?
I am surprised by two omissions in this article:
-The amount of experience children in school have with such software that schools and teachers may use to help organize homework, projects, and online learning.
-The lack of specific software/apps aimed at families that could cater more to some of the concerns expressed or provide features kids and parents like.
Zoning is a tool municipalities can use to control what kind of developments – and by extension, what kinds of people – can be in their community. A recent law review article looks at how zoning guidelines extend to defining families for the purposes of who can live in a residential unit:
Today, when courts ask “what makes a family?” they often look beyond blood, marriage, and adoption to see if people have made other meaningful, familial commitments that qualify for the obligations and benefits that family law provides. As functional family law developed, cohabitation became one of the most important factors, if not the determining factor, in these kinds of cases. The problem is that zoning laws often prevent these same functional families from living together in the first place. Through this underlying connection to zoning, functional developments in family law are much more vulnerable than they appear.
“Formal family” regulations in zoning are pervasive, and come with the imprimatur of the nation’s highest court. In the 1974 case Village of Belle Terre v. Boraas, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that municipalities can legally differentiate between related and unrelated families. In the intervening years, courts in 14 states have ruled that “formal-family” zoning is permitted by state constitutions, and the issue remains undecided in an additional 30 states. Only four state courts, in New Jersey, California, Michigan, and New York, have refused to sanction this form of discrimination, and lawmakers in Iowa recently became the first legislators to ban it. The Supreme Court has only revisited the issue once, in 1978, to clarify that the zoning definition of family cannot prevent blood relatives from living together…
The good news is that formal family zoning is of surprisingly recent vintage. There is a long history of functional family approaches to zoning in American jurisprudence, dating back to the early 20th century advent of zoning law. The first zoning ordinances didn’t define “family,” at all, and throughout the first 50 years of their operation, courts often ruled that functional families of all kinds—from gay couples and religious adherents to cult followers and sororities—could live together in peace. Even as “blood, marriage, or adoption” ordinances became more common, courts continued to rule that functional families fell within their wide interpretive ambit….
Formal family zoning is a familiar song—the same legal mechanisms that famously reinforced housing discrimination on the basis of race, also discriminate against families that vary from the nuclear ideal of a heterosexual couple raising their biological children. There is also compelling evidence that low-density zoning, like formal family ordinances, is a significant driver of racial and class segregation. In short, formal family zoning discriminates against non-normative families, but it also reinforces the racial and economic segregation effects of low-density zoning in general.
When they want to be, communities can be creative in developing zoning and other mechanisms that bring in the kind of residents and businesses that they feel fits their community (often along the lines of race and class).
I wonder how these family guidelines are related to zoning restrictions on overcrowding and the number of people allowed in dwellings. Court cases have dealt with this and it seems like the conditions could be similar at times to guidelines against functional families.
If functional families are not as desirable for some communities, perhaps another trend in households is more to their liking: the rise in single-person households. On one hand, suburban housing can be too big and not provide certain amenities like walkable places and public transportation. On the other hand, people in single-person households may use fewer public services and may be willing to purchase smaller, newer units (many suburbs want to build and sell condos and townhomes near downtowns or community focal points). Or, does zoning truly privilege the formal nuclear family in ways that do not extend to any other kinds of household configurations?
In watching one of the popular new TV shows, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, I was not surprised to see the first episode take place in Lakewood, California. Here are several reasons this makes sense:
- Lakewood is a paradigmatic suburb. It does not quite receive the amount of attention as Levittown but it is known as an important post-World War II suburb of Los Angeles. Read more about the suburb’s unique history on the city’s website.
- The home depicted is relatively small compared to many of the suburban homes constructed today. This is part of the tidying issues the family faces: the American pattern is to accumulate more stuff over a lifetime (partly to express a certain status) and one solution for adjusting to this stuff is simply to purchase a larger home.
- The family is depicted as living an ideal family lifestyle: they have been married five years (if I remember correctly), have two small kids, and live in a suburban single-family home. This family/single-family home connection is strong in the suburban psyche.
- The emphasis of the episode is on the private life of the family inside the home. Even with the show focused on the belongings inside the home, there is very little connection to the outside world, whether neighbors, or the larger suburb, metropolitan region, or nation. All these privately-held goods and familial relationships look like they are in a small bubble that the participants prefer to stay in.
Given the suburban emphases on single-family homes and consumption, perhaps it makes all the sense in the world to start such a show in a well-known suburb.
A Bloomberg story looks at the rise in birth in the United States outside of marriage and has this headline:
Almost Half of U.S. Births Happen Outside Marriage, Signaling Cultural Shift
And then the story quickly gets to the data:
Forty percent of all births in the U.S. now occur outside of wedlock, up from 10 percent in 1970, according to an annual report released on Wednesday by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the largest international provider of sexual and reproductive health services. That number is even higher in the European Union.
There is no doubt that this is significant trend over nearly 50 years. One expert sums this up toward the end of the story:
The traditional progression of Western life “has been reversed,” said John Santelli, a professor in population, family health and pediatrics at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health. “Cohabiting partners are having children before getting married. That’s a long-term trend across developing nations.”
Yet, the headline oversells the change. A move from 10% of births to 40% of births is large. But, is 40% nearly 50%? When I hear almost half, I would expect a number between 45% and 49.99%. Claiming 40% is nearly half is going a little too far.
I think the reading public would better served by either using the 40% figure or saying “Two-Fifths.” Or, perhaps the headline might speak to the 30% jump in nearly 50 years.
In the grand scheme of things, this is a minor issue. The rest of the story does a nice job presenting the data and discussing what is behind the change. But, this is a headline dominated age – you have to catch those eyes scrolling quickly on their phones – and this headline goes a bit too far.
Would those who spend money renovating their McMansions be better served by helping their adult children with that money? From the one seeking advice:
My parents (mom and stepdad) are in their 70s, retired, healthy, and doing well financially. They spend their money on traveling the globe and constantly remodeling their new Florida McMansion. That’s fine. They can spend their money on whatever makes them happy…
My sister had joint-replacement surgery and has high medical bills. I am going through a legal fight with a previous employer, am unemployed for the first time in my life (I’ve had a job since I was 14), and legal bills are eating my 401(k). Our parents know the details. We’re not asking for any help.
But I don’t want to get on the phone with my mom and have to hear all the issues of remodeling rooms that looked perfectly fine when I visited a year ago. Plus they don’t even ask how things are going with their children and grandchildren. It’s all talk about superficial things and how awesome they are doing.
Advice columnist responds:
But let’s back up for a second. You’ve presented this as a two-item menu: either endure your mom’s affluenza, or stop calling your parents.
There’s a middle choice, though: truth. “Mom, [sister] and I are buried in legal and medical bills. I can’t sympathize over expensive renovations.”
It does not sound as though the McMansion is the actual problem. Yes, the letter writer is upset because the mom both spends money on their McMansion (which, in the letter writer’s opinion, does not need more work) and then spends a lot of time talking about it. But, it seems as though the McMansion could be replaced by a number of objects or hobbies associated with people with resources. It could be golf, fixing up old cars, buying collectible items, playing bridge, or any number of things that, according to the letter-writer, keep the mom from paying sufficient attention to her kids.
At the same time, the McMansion is a potent symbol here. Since it is such a pejorative and loaded term, it leads readers toward a particular kind of person: one with poor taste in architecture, lots of money, and an interest in flaunting their status through their home. Additionally, who would prioritize their expensive home over the real needs of their children? These are not just parents who happen to live in a McMansion; these are unlikable McMansion owners.
Are McMansion owners on the whole more generous with their family? Do they have money to spare and give it away? Others have argued McMansions are bad for children; it is not clear from this letter whether the advice seeker grew up in this home. Could a whole generation of Americans reveal hurts produced by or in McMansions? Even with the attention they receive, widespread tales of childhood McMansion woes are unlikely given the actual number of McMansions in the United States.
A consistent finding of researchers when studying day-to-day suburban life or asking people about their suburban aspirations is the belief that the suburban life benefits families and children. Living alone in the suburbs presents particular problems.
That the suburbs are preferable for family life had an early start in Anglo suburbs. Historian Robert Fishman argues early English evangelicals like William Wilberforce moved from London to Clapham to give their wives and children safer and purer spaces outside the city. While the men could commute to the city for work and other engagements, the women and children had their own domain in the suburbs.
This image of a safe suburbia for families perhaps reached its peak in the decades immediately following World War II. The birth rate jumped (hence, Baby Boomers) and families needed more space. The country and many major cities faced a severe housing shortage. The social scientists who wrote the ethnographic study Crestwood Heights, a study of a Toronto suburb in the postwar era, noted that suburban social life revolved around the children: “In Crestwood Heights the major institutional focus is upon child-rearing.” (4) Even as these new suburbs may have offered few opportunities for teenagers until they could drive (sociologist Herbert Gans said Levittown was “endsville” for teenagers), families flocked to new homes, more green space, and new schools. Television shows of the era depicting suburbia tended to show white nuclear families enjoying a comfortable suburban life (think Father Knows Best, Leave it to Beaver, and The Brady Bunch).
Today, many of these ideas about how much better suburbs are for children remain. The suburbs offer more green spaces. They are quieter. They have lower crime rates. There is less traffic. Kids get a more “typical” American upbringing (and the modal experience in recent generations is a suburban upbringing). Single-family homes in the suburbs allow a family to purchase more space for the entire family, acquiring separate bedrooms to extra rooms to larger yards.
One of the strongest indicators regarding the importance of families and children in suburbia involves the importance of school districts for the desirability of communities, property values, and helping determine where people move. Schools are important because they are viewed as the one sure thing that can propel children to greater heights: going to a good school district leads to a good college which leads to a good job and then a high income and a comfortable life. These school boundaries must be defended at all costs. Examples abound. This includes both the busing issues of the late 1960s and early 1970s as well as the recent case of students in the failing school district serving Ferguson, Missouri who for one year had a shot at a better education at a whiter and wealthier district until the law was changed. This includes a debate chronicled by anthropologist Rachel Heiman among New Jersey suburbs about which kids should go to which high schools (and the wealthier families were able to keep their kids in the better-performing schools and limit which other kids were able to come to their schools).
Whether suburban children always come out ahead compared to kids from cities or rural areas is less clear. Even if the suburbs can be exclusionary, some upward social mobility is possible, such as one study that suggested DuPage County offered more opportunities than other counties or programs from the federal government, such as the Gautreaux Program or the Moving to Opportunity program, that aimed to move kids from poorer urban contexts to wealthier suburban communities. Part of theexcitement about a return of Americans to cities involves the choices by some families to stay in major cities, such as the influx of families to Battery Park in Manhattan. But, many Americans associate the suburbs with kids playing in the yard, multiple institutions that help nurture children and family life, and successful family outcomes decades later.