Will the American Nuclear Family Die Out?

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.

Put simply, these types of families don’t come cheap anymore. It’s no secret Americans are marrying in smaller numbers and having fewer children. They’re also living with roommates for longer and buying homes at lower rates than in past decades. Much of this change is positive: It stems in part from broader cultural acceptance of varied family types and living arrangements beyond traditional norms and binaries. Because the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey didn’t track unmarried couples until 1995, LGBTQ couples weren’t accounted for in historical nuclear family numbers. Family structures have also shifted as America has become more ethnically diverse. Asian and Latino families are more likely to live in multigenerational households than White families, for example — and Latino population growth drove half of the U.S. population increase recorded between 2016 and 2017.

Yet those coming-of-age today also face unique economic stressors that put downward pressure on the traditional nuclear arrangement, says Rob Warnock, a researcher at Apartment List who co-authored the study. The category of nuclear households was comprised of the highest earners compared to other family arrangements they observed. The median household income of the nuclear family bracket exceeded $100,000, says Warnock — far higher than the national median which hovers around $60,000. “It’s kind of striking that in order to achieve this kind of traditional, classic American household arrangement, you as a family need to have over $100,000,” says Warnock. “That’s pretty outrageous.”

… In order to achieve this kind of traditional, classic American household arrangement, you as a family need to have over $100,000.

Rob Warnock, Apartment List

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.

The nuclear family hasn’t just been touted as the American dream for 70 years. It’s also been the benchmark unit legislators and everyday people alike use to measure and compare a family’s economic health: everything from taxes to eligibility thresholds for public health insurance, to Section 8 eligibility, is shaped around a single household’s income.

But a nuclear family household of two earners together making $100,000 lives a vastly different reality than a household where five workers each make $20,000 and barely scrape by. The focus on the single family has also affected state and city zoning policies for decades, a trend against which the tide is now turning. Last summer, Oregon passed a bill effectively banning zoning laws that only allow single-family housing — though California rejected legislation that would have boosted density at the end of January.

As the nuclear family concept melts down, it’ll be key for both politicians and voters to consider what that means for policies going forward. That the composition of the American household has changed so dramatically is important — whether it’s because people can’t make the old dream work, or because they have different dreams, or because that traditional dream excluded a whole lot of Americans in the first place.

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