The term “nuclear family” has evolved to mean a number of different things over the years. Traditionally, “nuclear family” referred to a family with a married husband and wife and their biological or adopted children, all living together at the same house.
Today, some people still believe that’s how you define nuclear family. Other people, however, believe the term has evolved into something more.
Where did the idea of a nuclear family come from? Why do we need such a term? How has the term changed over time? Today, we’re explaining everything you need to know about the history of nuclear families.
The Term was First Used in 1947
The term “nuclear family” was first coined in 1947, according to Merriam-Webster Dictionary. That dictionary defines the term as “a family group that consists only of father, mother, and children”.
Obviously, the actual concept of a nuclear family is much older than 1947.
Note: Some online sources claim that the term “nuclear family” was first used in The Oxford English Dictionary in 1925, although we couldn’t find a concrete source for that.
When many people think of the term nuclear family, they envision a glamorized lifestyle reminiscent of the 1950s and 1960s: mom is in the kitchen cooking, dad works all day to support his family, and the kids are building a treehouse or playing baseball in the backyard.
Nuclear family is used interchangeably with elementary family. It’s seen as a contrast to single parent families and to larger extended families, or to families with more than two parents.
Up above, we talked about how the meaning of the term has changed over the years. There has always been debate about who gets included in the nuclear family. Some people claim the kids have to be biological kids and full-blood relatives, for example, while others believe stepchildren and adopted children should count.
Nuclear Family Becomes the Majority Family Unit in the 1960s and 1970s
Yes, nuclear families have existed for millennia. However, that doesn’t mean they’ve been the most popular family unit for millennia. The nuclear family didn’t become the dominant family unit until the 1960s and 1970s, for example. Prior to this time period, many families lived with parents or family.
What changed during the 1960s and 1970s? During this time, industrial economic booms, rising wages, and better healthcare access all made the nuclear family a reality. As healthcare became more accessible around the world, older family members were able to continue being self-sufficient and independent for decades after their children became adults.
Nuclear Families Are No Longer the Majority
Today, nuclear families are still common. However, they’re increasingly becoming a minority. As western societies become increasingly diverse, traditional nuclear families have comparatively dwindled. Today, families can include single parents, non-married parents, foster families, blended families, and couples without children.
Nuclear Families Were a Product of Western Europe and Theocratic Governments
Nuclear families have been – and continue to be – found all over the world for millennia. However, they were particularly prevalent in western European civilizations.
Many historians trace this back to the church and theocratic governments. Across various religions and denominations, Christianity consistently pushes a stable family with a husband, wife, and children.
However, the roots of the nuclear family are about more than just religion – many people attribute it equally to industrialization, and the industrial revolution.
Did the Industrial Revolution Promote Nuclear Families?
The emergence of industrialization and early capitalism pushed forward the idea of the nuclear family, according to some historians. These historians believe that the emergence of proto-industrialization and early capitalism caused the nuclear family to become a financially viable social unit.
During the Industrial Revolution, families moved to cities. Men – who were seen as the strongest source of labor for a hungry industrial world – went to work during the day, while the women would stay home to tend the house and raise the children. That’s how the Industrial Revolution promoted the nuclear family – at least in the Western world.
However, some historians disagree that that the Industrial Revolution actually made the family unit stronger. Sociologist Brigitte Berger, for example, claims that the Industrial Revolution seriously weakened the family unit by promoting the nuclear family. Instead of having men and women work together on farms in cohesive rural communities, they were forced into teeming, anonymous cities where men worked backbreaking labor while women were consigned to domestic drudgery.
Nuclear Families Date All the Way Back to the 1300s
It’s easy to think of the nuclear family as a modern invention, or as a product of the industrialized world. However, historians Peter Laslett and Alan MacFarlane found that this wasn’t generally the case. Prior to the research from these historians, it was generally agreed that extended families were common throughout western countries like England.
Laslett and MacFarlane’s research showed this wasn’t the case. They discovered that the nuclear family (a mother, father, and child or children in a house) was the “dominant arrangement in England stretching back to the thirteenth century.”
Thanks to this research, Laslett and MacFarlane dispelled the notion that nuclear families were a new phenomenon, or that they had only appeared with the rise of industrialization. Their research showed that the nuclear family was much older – at least in England.
What About Other Countries?
We just mentioned that English families tended to live in separate households dating back as far as the 1300s. However, England appears to be a unique example of the early nuclear family. Few other countries had the same prevalence as England when it came to the nuclear family.
For example, Southern Europeans tended to remain or marry into a family home, living with their in-laws under one roof for an extended period of time. This type of arrangement was also common throughout many parts of Asia and the Middle East.
Young couples in England, however, did not face the same pressure to move in with their in-laws. Instead, they faced pressure in the opposite direction: they were expected to establish their own household.
This, in turn, meant that men and women tended to marry later in England than they did in other parts of the world. Men and women would get married only after they had saved enough money to setup an independent home, for example.
By the time many couples in England got married, their parents were already deceased, which is why multi-generational households were a relative rarity in England.
Did Nuclear Families Cause the Industrial Revolution?
Some people believe that the Industrial Revolution didn’t promote nuclear families; instead, nuclear families promoted the Industrial Revolution.
In fact, some scholars have put forward this theory as to why England was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, while other countries in similar situations never experienced the same transformative change.
Here’s how Family-Studies.org, citing Berger, describes the connection between the Industrial Revolution and the nuclear family:
“The young nuclear family had to be flexible and mobile as it searched for opportunity and property. Forced to rely on their own ingenuity, its members also needed to plan for the future and develop bourgeois habits of work and saving.”
In other countries, younger families might move back to the family farm, tend the family land, or look after the family’s estate. In England, young married couples and their families were encouraged to be independent, making them more adaptable and more eager to seek out new opportunities.
Nuclear Families Were More Child-Focused than Extended Families
The English nuclear family had another advantage: it offered more specialized focus for each child, according to sociologists like Berger.
The idea behind this theory is that English brides got married at an older age, which meant they had fewer child-bearing years ahead of them. Thus, they tended to have fewer kids and smaller families. This helped encourage more focused attention on each child. Children would become an essential part of the family unit. There was more work for them to do, so they began to learn work ethic. They became skilled in some of the things that would make them essential laborers during the Industrial Revolution.
In contrast, brides in other parts of the world got married at a younger age. They tended to have more children. The idea is that when you have 5 or 10 kids, you pay less individualized attention to each one, which is why these countries weren’t the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution.
Nuclear Families Were Better Prepared to Deal with Education-Focused Societies
Throughout the 1800s, the Industrial Revolution encouraged countries to adopt mass schooling systems. Mass schooling led to an educated population of citizens who were better equipped to handle the complexities of the industrialized world.
Historians and sociologists like Brigitte Berger believe that nuclear families were better able to handle these changing educational needs. Berger calls teaching children “the family’s great educational mission”.
How does education change between nuclear and extended families?
According to Berger, extended and “clan” families are more under the control of the older generation. That makes them less adaptive, since older generations are more likely to raise children in the “old-fashioned way”, which is how the older generation was raised.
In nuclear families, on the other hand, education primarily comes from the mother and father, which means new ideas are more likely to be transferred onto the children. At the very least, it makes the families more adaptable to progress.
Modern Definitions of a Nuclear Family
Like many terms in the English language, “nuclear family” has adopted a number of different meanings over the years. Different people have different definitions for the term. Some people base their definitions in their religion, while others use the traditional definition from the dictionary.
Other people acknowledge that language has always adapted to changing cultural trends, and now use the term unclear family to refer to a number of different types of families.
Some people claim same sex parents can be a nuclear family, for example, while others believe you can still have a nuclear family even when other adults take on a cohabiting parental role (i.e. a conjugal family).
Nuclear Families Are Not Normal; They’re a Historical Aberration
So far, we’ve approached the history of nuclear families from a western point of view. In England, for example, nuclear families appear to have been the most common family unit since the Middle Ages.
Despite everything we’ve seen above, however, nuclear families are not the default human family unit. They’re not the majority family unit in the world today, and they have never been in the past.
Instead, the most popular family unit throughout history has always been the extended family.
It wasn’t until families started to become wealthy in the 20th century that we were able to live alone as a new couple with young children. Historically speaking, that’s a strange phenomenon.
Has the emergence of the nuclear family made us a better society? Some – like social conservatives in the United States – would argue that countries like America were built successfully on nuclear families.
Others, however, take a different approach. Tristan Fischer at HistoryFutureNow.com recently wrote an article entitled, “Why The Nuclear Family Needs To Die, In Order For Us To Live”.
In that article, Fischer describes how the nuclear family “is a historical aberration and ultimately doomed to fail”.
Why is a nuclear family a bad thing? Here are some of the points that Fischer brings up in his piece:
-In many parts of the world, extended families remain the norm to this day, including in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Southern Europe.
-Even in ancient western civilizations (like Rome), the family unit (called the “paterfamilias”) encompassed all of the immediate family members living in a household along with a variety of slaves, freedmen, and clients.
-Today, we’re seeing the final results of the transformative changes of the Industrial Revolution. Fischer writes,
“We are seeing the same pattern occurring in countries like China today, where millions of young Chinese from the central and western parts of China have left their hometowns and villages to seek jobs in factories along the coast. Many households are neither extended families nor nuclear families, but rather single dwellings or group dormitories, with a completely different set of social rules and norms.”
-In the United States, multi-generational households are on the rise (going from 11.5% of American households in 2007 to 14.6% in 2009)
-Nuclear families are not sustainable or economically efficient. HistoryFutureNow.com cites the fact that the government provides childcare to families, while it would be more efficient for older relatives to take care of young children. On the flip side of things, it would be more efficient for elderly people to leave retirement homes and be cared by younger relatives. They also cite pensions, unemployment, and housing benefits as reasons for the nuclear family system to end.
Ultimately, people fall into two groups in regards to nuclear families. Some people believe nuclear families are the savior of western civilization, and that the world’s greatest countries were built by nuclear families. Others see it as a new aberration in history, and that we’ll return to extended family systems in the future.
The Nuclear Family is Here to Stay
Whether you love it or hate it, there’s no doubt that the concept of the nuclear family isn’t going away anytime soon. However, the number of nuclear families is dwindling across most of the world.
Will the decline of the nuclear family cause western civilization to implode? Are we really that fragile? Or are nuclear families a clunky, outdated concept holding us back from economic achievements?
We’ll leave that debate to the historians and sociologists.