Declining Significance of the Family Unit
Feb 22, 2011

Declining Significance of the Family Unit

Our current society has experienced a significant decline in the relevance of the family unit. At times past, family members would remain in close geographic proximity, multiple generations would live together, have many kids, the primary economic relationships such as employment were often related to the family and with strong ties to the extended families. Today, elderly are more likely to live alone, families are often small and geographically separated (for instance my immediate family lives in three different provinces despite relatively strong ties), marriages are shorter lasting and the dominant economic factors such as where one gets work are often very separate from the family with children taking jobs outside of the fields of their parents and other relatives.

One major factor in this declining relevance of the family unit has been the socioeconomic globalization of the world. It allows for easy communication and travel outside of ones immediate family geography. Universal education and an equalization of opportunities allow families to spread out their education and subsequent work beyond family businesses and support structures. Once the playing field has been flattened in this way and access increased for socioeconomic opportunities, the relative advantage of local, family oriented socioeconomic structures diminish.

During the same, say, half century as the family unit has receded in relevance, governmental support systems have grown with the establishment of welfare programs that aid the elderly, sick, unemployed and the like. Caring for members of ones family who were suffering was once a core societal function of the family; one would have aging parents move in, physically care for a sick loved one, provide assistance to a son who couldn't find work, etc. Many of these roles have been partially replaced by the state.

There are both advantages and disadvantages to moving welfare from family units to the state. On the one hand, large efficiencies of scale and expertise may allow for, say, vastly improved medical care. Perhaps the largest advantage is distributing welfare over a larger pool; a poor family, for instance, may all suffer economic calamity together and not be able to help each other enough while the government can. On the other hand, the individualized attention and subjective valuations that families can uniquely provide are often left out in homogenous government programs.

The causality often goes both ways. For the safety net example, that there is a decline in the family support network increases the importance of a government social safety net. Conversely, the existence of the social safety net reduces the necessity of the family support system. We thus get a positive feedback loop that pushes towards a reduced family presence and a greater governmental presence. Likewise for the globalizing factor, the declining relevance of the family makes it easier to globalize as one isn't tied by family obligations and conversely the globalization of the world results in declining family relevance.

A similar phenomenon is occurring regarding neighborhoods for much the same reasons. While previously, members of a neighborhood would have significant relations and interdependencies, many today in an apartment block in Toronto may barely make eye contact. The more general trend here is away from socioeconomic relations that are static and localized towards ones that are dynamic and diverse.

Social custom also plays a reinforcing role - as it so often does - of the underlying socioeconomic forces. So for example, the empowerment of women who can be educated and employed as well as the existence of government support networks means that divorce has far less economic consequences than it once did. At the same time, social custom has been increasingly accepting of divorce. This social acceptance increases occurrence and the increased occurrence reinforces the social custom.

I should qualify that these changes mentioned above are perceived trends not absolutes. Further, these are descriptive claims not normative ones and should not be taken as a prescription of what we ought to do about these trends, merely that they exist. 

Thoughts on this post? Comment below!

Share this post:

Tweet It! Facebook Add Feed Reddit! Digg It! Stumble Delicious Follow

Post a Comment

Frequent Topics: