The Nuclear Family Goes Boom!

  • When cartoon-show creators William Hanna and Joseph Barbera strained their imaginations (ever so slightly) to picture the family of the future, it was a pretty simple exercise. Take your basic nuclear family: the modern, shop-happy housewife, the corporate-drone dad, two rambunctious kids and a dog; house them in a spacy-looking split-level; power their car with atomic energy; equip their home with a robot maid; and, whammo, you had it -- a space-age Cleaver family named The Jetsons.

    In an age of working mothers, single parents and gay matrimony, George Jetson and his clan already seem quaint even to the baby boomers who grew up with them. The very term nuclear family gives off a musty smell. The family of the 21st century may have a robot maid, but the chances are good that it will also be interracial or bisexual, divided by divorce, multiplied by remarriage, expanded by new birth technologies -- or perhaps all of the above. Single parents and working moms will become increasingly the norm, as will out-of- wedlock babies, though there will surely be a more modern term for them. "The concept of the illegitimate child will vanish because the concept of the patriarchal nuclear family will vanish," says Leslie Wolfe, executive director of the Center for Women Policy Studies.

    The clock cannot be turned back, despite the current political exploitation of old-fashioned family values. "The isolated nuclear family of the 1950s was a small blip on the radar," says Wolfe. "We've been looking at it as normal, but in fact it was a fascinating anomaly." While a strict reinforcement of traditional family roles is already under way in parts of the Muslim world and a backlash against feminism has occurred in the West, such counterrevolutions are likely to fail. "The fact of change is the one constant throughout the history of the family," says Maris Vinovskis, a professor at the University of Michigan. "The family is the most flexible, adaptive institution. It is constantly evolving."

    The rise of divorce in the late 20th century will be a primary influence on the family in the century to come. Divorce rates have recently stabilized, but they have done so at such a high level -- 50% of marriages will end in court -- that splitting up will be considered a natural thing. One reason the rate of divorce will remain high is that people will live longer. At the last turn of the century, at least one partner in a couple usually died before age 50, so husbands and wives were preoccupied with child rearing for nearly the entire length of their union. Now and in the future, "you may find yourself empty nesting at age 45, with 40 years of life to go," observes Ken Dychtwald, a San Francisco consultant specializing in the impact of longevity. As a result, he says, "it will become more normal to have several marriages. Divorce will not be seen as a failure but as a normal occurrence at various stages of life." Marriage contracts might be revised to include sunset clauses that would enable aging couples to escape an until-death-do-us-part commitment.

    Dychtwald cites the late anthropologist Margaret Mead as a pioneer of the kind of serial monogamy that may become popular in the next century. Mead liked to say that she was married three times, all successfully. Mead's husbands suited her needs at different points in her long and varied life. Her first partner, whom she called her "student-husband," provided a conventional and comfortable marriage. As her career progressed, however, she $ sought a traveling partner who was interested in her fieldwork. Finally, she found a romantic and intellectual soul mate.

    It will still be possible for a husband and wife to endure together the vicissitudes of many decades, but Dychtwald believes such couples will be rare. Once society has lost most of its taboos against divorce, it will take unusual commitment, flexibility and loyalty (perhaps fortified by a religious vow) to stick it out. Couples who endure to celebrate their golden anniversaries "will have mastered marriage," says Dychtwald. "It will be like mastering the violin or the cello."

    The nonvirtuosos will spend significant stretches of their adulthood rediscovering the single life. Current trends suggest that this will be particularly true of women, both because they live longer than men and because they are less likely to remarry. Women will adapt by developing new types of relationships: dating younger men, seeing more males in platonic friendships and living together in groups with other women, not unlike the Golden Girls model. Computer and videophone dating services will help with matchmaking far more than they do today.

    Serial monogamy will make family structures a great deal more complicated. The accretion of step-relatives and former in-laws will be legally messy and increasingly bewildering to children, who will have to divide their loyalties and love among stepmothers, birth mothers, biological fathers and ex- stepparents. An entire new body of case law will unfold as courts try to settle complex custody disputes and determine where a child's best interest may lie in a forest of hyphenated relatives.

    The growth of the extended family does not mean that huge clans will gather under one roof. "They'll want intimacy at a distance," says Andrew Cherlin, a sociology professor at Johns Hopkins University. The extended family will be more of a network of crisscrossing loyalties and obligations. As life-spans lengthen and marriages multiply, middle-aged couples could find themselves crushed by the responsibilities of caring all at once for aging parents, frail grandparents, children still completing their education and perhaps even a stepgrandchild or two. In short, the "sandwich generation," already feeling so much pressure in the 1990s, could give way to a multilayered club sandwich.

    As family relationships grow more complex, role confusion is bound to become epidemic. More battles will be fought over household turf, inheritance and rivalries for affection. Even incest, long considered an absolute taboo, will become a more complicated issue because the fracturing of families will make it harder to define. If nonrelatives within a family have sex, is that incest or something else?

    Many of the biggest changes in the next century, at least in the developed world, will be driven by the demographic tilt away from children and toward the elderly. A snapshot of a family gathering in 2050 will show lots of gray hair and not too many diapers. Even now, for the first time in history, the average American has more parents living than children. People age 65 and older, who constitute 11.3% of the U.S. population in 1980, will make up 22% of the country by 2050. Moreover, in the next three decades the number of Americans age 85 and older is expected to increase fivefold, to 15 million.

    That growth will spur a boom in the development of retirement communities. Those catering to the affluent will be highly sought after by regional civic boosters. "I can envision countries competing for these luxury communities in the same way they used to compete for auto plants, because they are such wealth engines," says William Johnston, a fellow at the Hudson Institute. A new, economical form of elderly residence called "assisted housing" is likely to be popular as well. In these complexes, the elderly are supervised but allowed to live alone. "It's not like a nursing home," says Karen Wilson, whose company, Concepts Community Living, operates two such residences in Oregon. "These are places where older people can live independently and where their family can come and do their laundry, bathe them and even stay with them."

    Some people in America will be unable, either emotionally or financially, to meet their family obligations. "We cannot be hopeful about their ability to preserve or create any kind of family structure, unless we step in to change their circumstances," says Margaret Mark, director of the Young & Rubicam Education Group. The worst victims may be children. "You may see kids trying to survive on the street," says Edward Cornish, president of the World Future Society in Bethesda, Maryland. "Think of Dickens' London. Worse, think of Brazil, where there are armies of children with no place to go."

    New technology and social institutions will have to emerge to help the fractured families of the future. Some forecasters, like Mark, predict that in poorer neighborhoods, schools will become 24-hour family-support systems offering child care, quiet study places, a sanctuary for abused or neglected youngsters, even a place to sleep for those who need one. At the same time, government computers will be far more efficient about tracking the legal obligations of citizens. Parents who fail to meet child-support payments will find it hard to hide.

    As corporations become more dependent on women workers and staffed by female executives at high levels, policies will become more accommodating toward families. Video-conferencing and other improvements in communications technology will make it easier for work to be done remotely from home, though it remains to be seen whether this would be truly a boon for family life. While work will be less tied to the office, it will also be more international and therefore more round-the-clock. Making a clear separation between work life and home life may actually become more difficult.

    With women constituting nearly half the work force, the remaining vestiges of gender inequality will gradually disappear, according to most forecasters. Slowly but inexorably, as women continue to move into fields once dominated by men, the gap between male and female wages will close. As it does, power balances will shift not only at the office but also in the kitchen. When both sexes have equivalent jobs and equivalent paychecks, it won't always be the woman who works "the second shift" of housework after hours or who stays home when a child is sick. Nor, for that matter, will it generally be the woman who receives child custody in a divorce.

    To help families cope with ever more intricate obligations, the government should allow large, extended families to incorporate themselves as businesses, suggests David Pearce Snyder, a consulting futurist. This would make families more productive and independent by giving them huge tax advantages that corporations enjoy: generous write-offs for helping each other with new business ventures, tuition funds and the ability to transfer wealth among members without being taxed. Such families would then be much better equipped to look after all their members, relieving the government and other institutions of that burden.

    On the other hand, an even more radical approach may evolve. It is reasonable to ask whether there will be a family at all. Given the propensity for divorce, the growing number of adults who choose to remain single, the declining popularity of having children and the evaporation of the time families spend together, another way may eventually evolve. It may be quicker and more efficient to dispense with family-based reproduction. Society could then produce its future generations in institutions that might resemble the state-sponsored baby hatcheries in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. People of any age or marital status could submit their genetic material, pay a fee, perhaps apply for a permit and then produce offspring. "Embryos could be brought to fetal and infant stage all in the laboratory, outside the womb," says Cornish. "Once ready, the children could be fed by nurses or even automated machinery."

    In any event, as the nuclear family dissolves, what is likely to evolve is a sort of make-your-own-family approach, which Dychtwald calls "the family of choice." Institutions, employers, neighbors and friends will take on roles once dominated by relatives. "The need and craving for family has not diminished," he says. "It's just that people are forming their own little tribes based on choice and affinity and not on blood." These new pseudo- relatives could overcome the one immutable truth about families: you can't pick your parents. Someday, maybe, you will be able to.