Guest Post: What is a family?
By guest blogger rwitte
The social structures commonly talked about when discussing finance and economics include individuals, governments and corporations. However the most social structure is family, since it is the structure that results in the perpetuation of society. I was reminded of this by a recent link that mathbabe posted here. And since she invited me to write a guest post, it inspired me to mouth off about family.
What do you think of when someone uses the word family? I am guessing that you think of the so-called nuclear family consisting of a husband a wife and a variable number of children. For sure their are many variants including one-parent families and gay families, but the ideal is thus. It wasn’t always so. I am a fifty year old male of Ashkenazi Jewish descent. In that community my generation is the first to have prioritise the needs of small nuclear families. My grandmother’s idea of family was a much larger group, extending over several generations, and with a healthy side-order of cousins, aunts etc. My wife is Jaimaican, and her mother’s conception of family is similar to my grandmother’s (except the Jamaican version is even more matriarchal because so many of the fathers are absent).
I don’t know if you have ever seen a family home from a hundred and fifty or more years ago. You will be surprised at the size; there are more rooms for a family, at any level in the social scale. This is because the experiences of my wife and I are not unique, they are just a few generations later than those of the majority. Until relatively recently, as in most ‘primitive’ societies, the family is the extended family, and you will commonly find three or four generations living together.
I think the organisation of society into extended families was a great idea, and that the fragmentation into nuclear families sucks. But before I explain what’s so terrible about them I want to take a paragraph to explain why I think the change occured in the first place. Nuclear families are small and relatively mobile. As industrialization progressed and first transcontinental and then transglobal corporations formed, it suited their purpose to be able to move and resettle employees between different sites in their empires. At the other end of society the pull of the factories was encouraging many to move from rural areas to the big city. This also fragmented extended families; the units that moved were nuclear. As a process in the developed countries, it probably peake in the 1950s or 1960s, but it is still going on now in developing countries such as China.
The original myth of the nuclear family was one in which the male was the breadwinner and married women stayed home to provide full time childcare. This idea, obviously sexually discriminatory, is certainly a myth. It has never been the case that poor couples could support themselves on one person’s wages. Manual labour has never been that well payed. And since the rich typically had access to nannies, only a thin stratum of society has ever organized childcare this way.
Today, in an attempt to paper over the cracks in this story, a new myth has arisen. Namely, the ‘superwoman’ who has it all: career, children, and social life (it only take 28 hours a day eight days a week!). In actual fact this myth is probably even more dangerous than the previous one, because millions of women are now trying to live up to this impossible ideal. When they don’t overachieve these impossibly demanding targets, they feel guilty and inadequate. For some, serious mental health issues can ensue as the buckle under the pressure.
We often complain about the poor quality of life our society offers to our elders. They get stuck in some retirement home quitely out of sight where they can slowly die of boredom. The middle classes must pay for child-care and the exorbitant prices push them towards poverty. Meanwhile poor parents simply cannot afford adequate child care and poor children roam the streets; ‘latch-key kids’ with no adequate supervision between the end of school and the parents’ return from the work. Some of these children get really out-of-control; getting involved with drugs, crime, and street-gangs in some combination. I don’t want to get too carried away with arguments about ‘the youth of today’ because the rose-tinted vision painted nostagia never was, but still I hear the cries, something must be done.
I believe that we can overcome all these social problems by returning to a social organisation based on extended families. The grandparents can look after the children while the able-bodied parents go out to work. This leads to an interesting and fulfilling retirement, in which they can pass on the wisdom that they have accumulated over the years to a willing audience. The children get an educational, loving and supportive home-life which will help them to grow up honest and secure. And the fittest adults can commit 100% to the workforce increasing social productivity.
Of course it may be that the grandparents are still too young to retire and the great-grandparents take on the responsibility. Or maybe a cousin or Aunt who particularly enjoys childcare can set up a sort of family creche. Perhaps all the adults work and coordinate their days off in a rota so that who looks after the children depends on the day of the week. Nobody would be surprised to discover that while all families have much in common, every family is different. The role of the greater society is as to encourage and enable relatives to remain geographically close to each other. It would be up to each particular family to work out how to organise themselves for their own convenience (although there is some evidence to suggest that children brought up by maternal grandparents are more psychologically secure than those brought up by paternal grandparents).
Modern advances in information and communication technology may render a society with less geographical relocation of people possible. You don’t have to be in the same office to work with somebody (hell, you don’t even have to be in the same continent). Instead of workers having to move around the globe, they can stay with their parents and children while their information flows around the internet and other computing networks, more quickly, conveniently and cheaply.