The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake

On My Mind | 2024.01.19

Welcome to all our new subscribers! But What For? is about anything — because anything can be interesting. History. People. Ideas. Investing.

Last week, I tried out an ad for the first time. It was a test — and I received no negative feedback (yet!). I am waiting to see exactly how the number of clicks turn into dollars, which would help offset Beehiiv-related expenses. For now, I won’t be putting in another ad until I understand the “after hitting send” process a bit better.

Last week’s poll also got better engagement than normal — but still well below what I hope to see over time (hint, hint!) as total engagement (someone clicking the newsletter) sits between 7% and 9% whereas poll voting sits around ~1%. It would be amazing to see the 1% move closer to the 9% 😄 

The results were interesting (see Poll below) as readers are more or less interested in every genre I’ve tried to cover historically, with “Ideas” only winning by a small margin. That is actually helpful — if you go back a couple years, I almost always focused my longer-form articles on stories and the ideas you could take away for everyday life.

So, to dig into reader preferences a bit further, I asked another content-related question this week. Please check it out and let me know your thoughts!

Given I have recently restarted BWF, I have been working through a number of technical things — getting my domain name re-recognized by the mail clients like Gmail / Apple, churning off old email address that don’t open the emails, and helping people unsubscribe that no longer want these emails.

The other side of that is working to understand what kind of emails are most relevant to all of you — so your feedback via the poll (or replying here to send me an email!) is much appreciated.

Thank you!

As always, if you would like to support this newsletter, I would greatly appreciate it!

ButWhatFor? Four for Friday

1. One Quote: The Ultimate Measure

2. One Long: The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake

3. One Short: 1 in 25 Were French

4. One Poll: Four vs One

One Quote

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.

— Martin Luther King Jr., Strength to Love

Shared by Jim O'Shaughnessy on Twitter earlier this week.

One Long

The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake (Link)

As the years go by in the movie, the extended family plays a smaller and smaller role. By the 1960s, there’s no extended family at Thanksgiving. It’s just a young father and mother and their son and daughter, eating turkey off trays in front of the television. In the final scene, the main character is living alone in a nursing home, wondering what happened. “In the end, you spend everything you’ve ever saved, sell everything you’ve ever owned, just to exist in a place like this.”…

This is the story of our times—the story of the family, once a dense cluster of many siblings and extended kin, fragmenting into ever smaller and more fragile forms. The initial result of that fragmentation, the nuclear family, didn’t seem so bad. But then, because the nuclear family is so brittle, the fragmentation continued. In many sectors of society, nuclear families fragmented into single-parent families, single-parent families into chaotic families or no families.

If you want to summarize the changes in family structure over the past century, the truest thing to say is this: We’ve made life freer for individuals and more unstable for families. We’ve made life better for adults but worse for children…

I grew up in the middle of the United States. My wife didn’t. She moved here to attend university after growing up in Asia.

And while all spouses bring to their marriages their own backgrounds / family culture / feeling of what is normal, the two of us having such different formative years leads to some fairly large differences in how we view the world.

One such area is how families operate.

I grew up living in a nuclear family — two parents plus their child(ren). My grandparents lived in their own houses in different parts of the town — and that didn’t change even after deaths meant both grandmothers were living alone. I had cousins I saw occasionally, and while I remember aunts, uncles, and their extended families, somewhere along the way we all stopped making the time to see each other.

My wife, on the other hand, grew up in a rather integrated family — early on, her grandparents helped raise her. Her great grandmother lived with her grandparents. She thinks of her cousins as more-or-less her siblings — even calling them brother and sister — as they were interchangeably in-and-out of everyone’s houses as if the families were all part of some ant hill linking them together.

Thus, when it comes to how we expect our family members to interact with my wife and our small, budding family, we think differently. In her eyes, American families are cold, lonely, fragile, and overly formal. In mine, the kind of family she grew up in is stifling, lacking privacy, overly burdened with obligations, and too casually comfortable asking about private affairs.

The attached article makes the case that America’s nuclear family system is the more abnormal setup when you look at trends globally over the last few thousand years. Apparently, it didn’t really show up until the mid-1900s, when a post-WWII economic boom led to a unique time and place in America where single, male breadwinners could support families while letting go of obligations to their extended families because that web of support was no longer needed.

The author further suggests that the more insulated nuclear family model — which has all the traits of how families interact that I feel are normal — hasn’t necessarily lead us to a better place. More specifically, those families on the lower end of income and wealth seem to have been hit hardest — so hard, in fact, that their nuclear families have splintered.

This splintering seems to come from the fact that nuclear families are fragile, and thus more easily fractured by external and internal pressures. Replacing them are single-parent or single-adult “family” structures.

Some interesting, and at times disturbing, statistics shared in the article:

  • In 1960, only 13% of adults lived alone. In 2018, 28% of adults did.

  • In 1850, 75% of those older than 65 lived with relatives. In 1990, 18% did.

  • As of 2005, 85% of children born to upper-middle-class families live with both parents. Only 30% of working-class families’ children do.

  • In 1960, 11% of children lived in a home without a father. In 2010, 27% did.

  • As of 2018, 2/3rds of African American children live with in single-parent households.

Those stats don’t sound very good (and I have not independently verified them, but I trust the Atlantic would have done so). It seems the current system isn’t working as well as it could. And that is leading to some interesting changes in how modern people think through how to define “family”, who “kin” are, and what meaning life actually carries.

One Short

1 in 25 Were French (Link)

In this time period, Britain grew their economy and population simultaneously, catching up to France in population.

France instead enriched its population through constraining its size.

The per capita GDPs in each country became virtually identical.

— Cremieux

I came across an interesting Twitter thread from September last year, so I thought we could take a break from the BWF Famous Bookshelves additions this week.

I know very little of French history, though I did write about one of the earliest financial bubbles and subsequent collapse as France experimented with paper money. Given the influence France had globally before the rise of Britain, I’ve always told myself I would eventually spend time digging into their history.

I still haven’t done that.

What makes French history sound fairly interesting, to me, is that it shows a powerful nation lose influence as it becomes rich and it’s people become “modern”.

Cremieux talks about how changes in fertility rate, and what drove that change, helped lead to that outcome. Given all the talk today of declining fertility rates globally, it is interesting to think about.

Not that I can come up with something we could do about the declining trend — but it’s interesting nonetheless.

One Poll

As long-time readers of BWF will know, I have used a couple different email formats historically depending on the week. These formats can roughly be broken down into two styles — 1) the BWF Four for Friday format with multiple topics covered at a high-level and 2) a single topic, whether it be a historical event, biography, idea, or similar.

An example of the BWF Four for Friday would be this email, with a couple more below:

Examples of the single topics would include:

Which form of email do you prefer?

Login or Subscribe to participate in polls.

Results from last week’s poll:

  • Question: On average, what are you more interested in?

  • Results:

  • Select Comments:

    • “Ideas: But they can be ideas about people, history, or investing. :)”

    • “People: and their ideas!”

If you made it all the way down here, please take a moment to forward it to someone that might find it interesting — I appreciate your support greatly!

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Have a great weekend,

— EJ

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