The family is the first community we are born into and is our primary developmental influence, but have changes to our American culture jeopardized this sacred institution?
By Steve Palin, Jr.
What makes a family?
Our first instinct may be to say our family is whom we are genetically related to. Others might list the inner-circle of the nuclear ideal: spouses and their children (possibly a pet). Many would point out that genetic and legal associations alone don’t establish a family, but also the depth of the relationship that creates a unique social bond—the individuals who garner trust, dependency, and intimacy that isn’t typically accessible to the greater public or everyday acquaintances. Though the nuclear family pervades our culture as the accepted template for family planning, the truth is families have existed with several important nuances throughout history: single-parent homes or extra relatives, remarried couples with genetically unrelated children, strangers who were included in the fold due to circumstance. The further we go back the more interesting it becomes: the inclusion of members such as indentured servants or a man marrying his late brother’s wife in hopes of preserving reputation and security.
It seems that no matter how we physically compile a family, what comes down to the core of it’s existence is that intimate investment we are able and willing to make with an exclusive group of people. Unfortunately, it seems as if the ability to invest has incrementally slipped away.
Before the Industrial Revolution (1760-1830), families for most of human history could be categorized into three general groups:
The vast majority fell into the second category with a fair amount of overlap and movement to and from the first. This middle group not only spent the majority of their time with family, but their very existence as individuals depended on close social bonds and physical proximity. Farmers grew and gathered the yield for about seven to eight months a year, while craftsmen usually worked in short (but equally arduous) sessions throughout the seasons. Values and skills were handed down through osmosis, as families developed around the need to refine those values and skills. Granted, technological and epistemological limitations still meant the life of the common person was still terribly brutish, but they had the time to cultivate families and invest in the next generation.
As landlords began to realize machines produced more than laborers and laborers produced more as cogs in a machine, those who worked from home were gradually forced to leave it. It was low-skill, year-round work where instead of the value one produced being directly benefited from, the product of that labor was given up at the mercy of a wage.
Thomas Jefferson engendered the public school system after he begrudgingly came to terms with the inevitability of industry against his vacuous ideal of the agrarian society, yet he may have been surprised to learn that the horrid conditions under the thumb of the industrial ruling class were such that children were forced to abandon education after elementary school to help support their families. Of course children had always helped in craft and on farm before, but leisure shifted from an ineludible annual happening to a circumstantial daily luxury. The hope of technology intrinsically loosing humanity’s material responsibilities and freeing us up to cultivate our potential through leisure was vanishing to the opposite: we now had to work more than ever and the little time we had off as children or adults was spent consuming or acquiring our basic needs.
The Second Industrial Revolution (1870-1914), sometimes called the Technological Revolution, contributed to the advent of obscenely wealthy barons and a doubling-down on the transformation of the agrarian majority to an industrial majority. The specter of Marxism itself was the possessed awareness of individual rights against the industrial state, despite ironically contributing to the most brutal totalitarian regimes in history.
This awareness combined with the need to combat Communist temptations elicited an era of human rights—one that bolstered the question of race relations and women’s suffrage in the U.S. Populist Nationalism took stage and mandatory schooling for children became enforced. The 40-hr workweek with fair wages came packaged with workers protections and social safety nets. After the Great Depression and WWII ended, an interesting compromise between industry and the family had emerged. The Greatest Generation invented what the Baby Boomers perfected: teenage subculture. As the generations before saw the developmental turn around 13 as the moment one must assume the role of an adult, higher participation in high school gave them a stage to play out the confusing, pubescent drama of self-discovery on a scale never before possible.
Perhaps the nostalgia for the 1950’s isn’t the notion it was preferable by our contemporary wisdom, but because there is a sentiment embedded in our cultural history as the time when family investment was making a comeback against industrial estrangement.
However, the background obsession with exorcising Marxism from the national identity allowed a separate spirit to manifest: that of the ‘Invisible Hand’. Eisenhower warned us of the Military-Industrial complex because the consequence of industrial consciousness was a type of complacent material addiction. Families became commercial targets as department store culture took advantage of national unity via a cookie-cutter consumerism. The short change of trend towards leisure and family was reversed when “keeping up with the Jones’” met easy access to labor to satisfy a craving for amenities of status and entertainment. The homemaker was devalued by being untapped capital potential as much as the homemaker began assessing value through material acquisitions.
The most recent successful form of feminism wasn’t so much a fight against male oppression (though it existed), but rather a declaration of individual value established through the ranks of the corporate roster; an independent person was one who entered the rat-race outside the home and proved they could compete with the best for equal recompense.
By the 1970’s, the trend of two full-time working parents began to climb and no one seemed to bother asking, “who’s going to raise the children?”
Luckily, with the previous generation having an abundance of homemakers and retired grandparents, there were other family members to assume the roles. But as everyone became older, the elderly needed as much care as the children needed rearing. Society’s response was naturally aligned with it’s addiction; instead of returning to strengthening the family, we invested into elderly home markets and daycare programs, which became unique American industries in their own right due to this dynamic.
In order to make an investment, family members need to occupy the same space and interact with each other to establish that sacred intimacy. Families have changed throughout the ages, but this apparent necessity has been removed in a matter of a couple generations. Our culture has done worse than not bat an eye: it’s insatiably encouraged it. Our American (and increasingly western and global) culture is literally destroying the crux of cultivating and sustaining the family—time to invest. It would seem that today almost every “family” spends very little of their days and subsequently little of their lives together. Some questions should arise: again, who is raising our children? Sure, most child supervisors and educators perform their paid duties well, but the personal investment one makes is questionable if not by the adult-to-child ratio alone. Who are we spending the majority of our time with? Few have the luck of a career that invests in themselves, let alone family or their communities in any other way than financially. Chances are we’re making lop-sided sacrifices in order to provide the basic necessities, with only purchased comfort and distraction beyond that.
Where French philosopher Josef Pieper warned us of the dictatorship of the proletariat against leisure as the basis of culture, he may have been startled to learn American philosopher Michael Sandal’s quip could become a reality: we went from having a market economy to being a market society—our friends and family becoming more like commodities and our relationships mainly transactional. Busyness became a virtue and wealth a sort of validation of our righteousness. Instead of using our understanding of historical family diversity as an invitation to inclusiveness or solidify those relationships within our moral circle, we are questioning if the family unit has ever been anything more than an evanescent social construct. The reason, “it takes a village to raise a child” isn’t because we seem to be bonded to community for family cohesion and identity, but because we want everyone in our environment to spend a portion of their time divvying up our personal responsibilities so that we can further partake in our increasingly demanding and superficial lives.
If we believe family is an invaluable factor in our lives, than we need to start questioning and reordering the other aspects that have slowly diminished that bond. Work-life balance studies are today what leisure studies in the 1950’s became: a small light into a corner of a dark room we’re afraid to look around. Automation, market volatility, and contemporary sensitivities thanks to instantaneous communication should have brought the family to the forefront of our cultural critique—instead we are either using the concept of family as a pseudo-romantic battering ram against those most vulnerable to this vacuum or discounting the family as a necessary institution altogether. Are we going to continue to allow the trend of our loved ones becoming little more than variables on our household leger who we enjoy small, fleeting instances with? Or are we ready to reclaim the first community we are all born into and invest into those who we all need the most?
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