Brooks: "The Nuclear Family was a Mistake"

How to explain ERE, arranging family matters
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jennypenny
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Brooks: "The Nuclear Family was a Mistake"

Post by jennypenny »

David Brooks' new article in The Atlantic ... The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake: The family structure we’ve held up as the cultural ideal for the past half century has been a catastrophe for many. It’s time to figure out better ways to live together.

It's long but definitely worth a read. It touches on some cultural and political aspects that I'm hesitant to get into here. Even Brooks acknowledges that no one has the answer ... "while social conservatives have a philosophy of family life they can’t operationalize, because it no longer is relevant, progressives have no philosophy of family life at all, because they don’t want to seem judgmental."

There are some points in the article, however, that definitely relate to the ERE lifestyle. They also echo some complaints and issues that are mentioned frequently when pursuing ERE -- complaints that may actually be making people unintentionally less resilient. The gist is that extended families worked because we had a network of social capital that helped us through good times and bad, that the nuclear family arose out of a particularly wealthy/stable period in our [American] history, and that it's no longer viable unless you have the money to 'buy' your extended family through other means.

Here are some excerpts (notice the language Brooks uses, including 'web' and 'resilience' ...

"Extended families have two great strengths. The first is resilience. An extended family is one or more families in a supporting web. Your spouse and children come first, but there are also cousins, in-laws, grandparents—a complex web of relationships among, say, seven, 10, or 20 people. If a mother dies, siblings, uncles, aunts, and grandparents are there to step in. If a relationship between a father and a child ruptures, others can fill the breach. Extended families have more people to share the unexpected burdens—when a kid gets sick in the middle of the day or when an adult unexpectedly loses a job."

"But while extended families have strengths, they can also be exhausting and stifling. They allow little privacy; you are forced to be in daily intimate contact with people you didn’t choose. There’s more stability but less mobility. Family bonds are thicker, but individual choice is diminished. You have less space to make your own way in life."

"The decline of multigenerational cohabiting families exactly mirrors the decline in farm employment. Children were no longer raised to assume economic roles—they were raised so that at adolescence they could fly from the nest, become independent, and seek partners of their own. They were raised not for embeddedness but for autonomy."

"Over the past two generations, the physical space separating nuclear families has widened. ...married people are less likely to visit parents and siblings, and less inclined to help them do chores or offer emotional support. A code of family self-sufficiency prevails: Mom, Dad, and the kids are on their own, with a barrier around their island home."

"Among the highly educated, family patterns are almost as stable as they were in the 1950s; among the less fortunate, family life is often utter chaos. There’s a reason for that divide: Affluent people have the resources to effectively buy extended family, in order to shore themselves up. Think of all the child-rearing labor affluent parents now buy that used to be done by extended kin: babysitting, professional child care, tutoring, coaching, therapy, expensive after-school programs. (For that matter, think of how the affluent can hire therapists and life coaches for themselves, as replacement for kin or close friends.) "

"If the U.S. returned to the marriage rates of 1970, child poverty would be 20 percent lower. As Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University, once put it, “It is the privileged Americans who are marrying, and marrying helps them stay privileged.”

"When you put everything together, we’re likely living through the most rapid change in family structure in human history. The causes are economic, cultural, and institutional all at once. People who grow up in a nuclear family tend to have a more individualistic mind-set than people who grow up in a multigenerational extended clan. People with an individualistic mind-set tend to be less willing to sacrifice self for the sake of the family, and the result is more family disruption. People who grow up in disrupted families have more trouble getting the education they need to have prosperous careers. People who don’t have prosperous careers have trouble building stable families, because of financial challenges and other stressors. The children in those families become more isolated and more traumatized."



Here Brooks talks about how we're stuck, and how it lowers our 'human capital' ...

"Many people growing up in this era have no secure base from which to launch themselves and no well-defined pathway to adulthood. For those who have the human capital to explore, fall down, and have their fall cushioned, that means great freedom and opportunity—and for those who lack those resources, it tends to mean great confusion, drift, and pain."

"Our culture is oddly stuck. We want stability and rootedness, but also mobility, dynamic capitalism, and the liberty to adopt the lifestyle we choose. We want close families, but not the legal, cultural, and sociological constraints that made them possible. "


"Ever since I started working on this article, a chart has been haunting me. It plots the percentage of people living alone in a country against that nation’s GDP. There’s a strong correlation. Nations where a fifth of the people live alone, like Denmark and Finland, are a lot richer than nations where almost no one lives alone, like the ones in Latin America or Africa. Rich nations have smaller households than poor nations. The average German lives in a household with 2.7 people. The average Gambian lives in a household with 13.8 people. ... That chart suggests two things, especially in the American context. First, the market wants us to live alone or with just a few people. That way we are mobile, unattached, and uncommitted, able to devote an enormous number of hours to our jobs. Second, when people who are raised in developed countries get money, they buy privacy."


Brooks goes on to argue for 'forged families' and rebuilding extended families in a loose sense (he mentions Tribe). The goal of the new extended family would be the same as the old, without the stifling social constructs and biases.


The lack of a forged family strikes me as a danger of FIRE/ERE people, and we falsely assume that independence is inherently secure because we can always buy other types of capital. I know families are annoying and getting married risks a messy divorce, and I'm not really advocating for either per se. I'm only pointing out that the lone wolf we tend to romanticize here might skew our thinking towards independence. As a group, we seem more willing to withstand market downturns than emotional ones related to the people in our lives.

I think this is what's bugging me in the Boyle thread ... he's giving up too much social capital to, in his case, acquire material and skill capital. If he'd started with this approach, he might not have been able to survive his moneyless phase because he wouldn't have had enough social capital to do it. He built up a huge cache of social capital when he was younger and he's been spending it down through his moneyless and now technology-less experiments. Maybe what he's doing is necessary to help him find his tribe (Brooks calls it a 'band') that will ultimately prove to be more resilient than the rest of us. I don't know. I guess I worry that the social capital will run out before the tribe is formed or before he needs it for something important, similar to when people's bankrolls run out before the market recovers. What's the baseline nut that one should maintain in all areas to maintain resiliency?


Maybe the strongest/toughest person amongst us isn't the one who can live alone in the woods, it's the one who can withstand the drama at Thanksgiving dinner to maintain close ties with those they've chosen to call family?

basuragomi
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Re: Brooks: "The Nuclear Family was a Mistake"

Post by basuragomi »

Social capital only really manifests in times of crisis or vulnerability and even then has limited reliability. Independence means never being vulnerable and always having control over the situation. I can see both why people idealize independence and why true independence is a pipe dream. Socializing is also one of the most mentally exhausting things people can do, and avoiding it is (potentially tremendous amounts of) time instead spent on other things, like doing cool things or buying cool stuff.

I think ERE actually provides the opportunity to earn much more social capital than a conventional job. In a job there is a strong hierarchy and all actions are interpreted in that context. You can only really build social capital within your caste, and it is likely everyone lives physically far from each other. The concept of professionalism further de-emphasizes personal relationships between workers. Being financially independent allows you to participate in your immediate community in ways that are neither strictly transactional nor reflect your relative status. This should increase the odds of reciprocity. The Renaissance ideal would further integrate you across a broad but shallow part of the community, appropriate for your degree of kinship.

The drawback to high community cohesion is a closed society. Lots of corruption, discrimination and nepotism since people prioritize buffering social capital over the demands of the state. Probably not so ideal for immigrant societies.

I think ERE people realize how important social capital is. It seems like a significant fraction of people cite building social ties (though usually with children) as a reason to pursue FIRE. I definitely realize how much lifestyle slack my extended family gives me - I'd be able to survive for a monetary pittance in times of crisis, even in this incredibly expensive city.

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Ego
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Re: Brooks: "The Nuclear Family was a Mistake"

Post by Ego »

Great post! I have not yet read the article but I certainly will after reading your synopsis.

We try to adopt the best of both worlds by ruthlessly eliminating from our tribe those who just don't play well with others (more difficult in trad families of the past) while adding new and unusual members who would otherwise not fit in a strict family structure. Truth be told, we've done more eliminating than adding and it has been easier to shift around the characters as our needs, interests and tastes change.

I look forward to reading the entire article.

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Re: Brooks: "The Nuclear Family was a Mistake"

Post by black_son_of_gray »

@ jp - Great topic, and I agree, one that isn't as emphasized as much around here as money. I haven't read Boyle's most recent book, but what I'm sensing from your comments, it sounds a bit like he has internalized some of the wisdom of the Amish with respect to choosing to live a low-tech life, but without the social framework which is huge in those communities. [Although I do remember him saying in one of his interviews that he and his neighbors help each other out, e.g. on building projects etc.] Is that fair?

Peanut
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Re: Brooks: "The Nuclear Family was a Mistake"

Post by Peanut »

I read this article a couple days ago. A bit long-winded, but a good historical overview. I remember he said that there was a pseudo-extended family during the golden age of the middle-class (50s and 60s) in the sense that neighborhoods were places where families looked after each other as well as their own, and had the authority to do so. So parents could discipline other people's kids, something if naively attempted today would potentially result in an unpleasant altercation. So as we've moved away from that model of living towards even more independence/isolation, the nuclear family has come under additional stress.

I was surprised to learn about Brooks's own adopted tribe, so to speak. Never thought poorly of him, but it made me think well of him, because from an outsider's superficial view of his life it would seem he has no need for additional social ties beyond his family given his great professional success. IOW, he already had it all, including plenty of literati-type friends I'm sure, but he sought to go further and make connections to people totally outside of his natural spheres, bc he sees these connections as mutually enriching.

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Re: Brooks: "The Nuclear Family was a Mistake"

Post by TopHatFox »

Single parents are hardly better

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Re: Brooks: "The Nuclear Family was a Mistake"

Post by fiby41 »

"No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main."

The Dunbar number is kinda misleading as it does not qualify the contact. You can know 125 people intimately (tribe), a multiple of that number only by what they do for a living, a greater multiple of people by their names, still higher by their first-name, more by their username and a great many you don't even have to see or know for them to be useful to you.

We definitely have a capacity to tolerate greater noise than Neanderthals as their remains have always been found in band sizes, which does not mean their tribes may not have existed however.

What I want to say is human contact necessary for keeping the spine from shrivelling can be had from those other than our immediate kin, we are flexible in that way. Eg. Old age home, nursery, forum although the intensities may be different.

daylen
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Re: Brooks: "The Nuclear Family was a Mistake"

Post by daylen »

Thinking in terms of social capital is very unnatural for me. It is just not that useful for me in practice. There are moments when myself and others synchronize together (perhaps repeatedly) and that is as far as it usually goes. I tend to place trust in the synchronization/situation, not in the individuals (with a few exceptions).
Last edited by daylen on Thu Feb 13, 2020 3:18 pm, edited 1 time in total.

daylen
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Re: Brooks: "The Nuclear Family was a Mistake"

Post by daylen »

In terms of the Kegan scale:

K2 - always out of sync
K3 - always in sync (anxious when desynchronized)
K4 - selective synchronization and focus on universal social capital
K5 - specialized synchronizations for different types of growth (for self, individuals, and groups)

So, since most people operate at K3, it is usually easiest to just pretend that you are fully in sync (if using Fe). At K4, social capital assigns values/trade-offs to different syncs and individuals within a sync can be differentiated based on their capital contribution. At K5, syncs are more particularized (with their own social capital/values/trade-offs) and differentiated from other syncs based on their type of growth.

Hormones and neurotransmitters can be thought of as the units of synchronization. Quadras can be thought of as clustering in the space spanned by these units.

ertyu
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Re: Brooks: "The Nuclear Family was a Mistake"

Post by ertyu »

Extended families are also extremely, extremely oppressive. There's a reason why cultures become individualistic as soon as they can afford it.

daylen
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Re: Brooks: "The Nuclear Family was a Mistake"

Post by daylen »

Normative reasoning on this topic ultimately just leads to another form of the traditionalism/modernism dialectic. individualism + global capitalism + modular households = good (modernism) versus .. = bad (traditionalism)

George the original one
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Re: Brooks: "The Nuclear Family was a Mistake"

Post by George the original one »

I mostly buy into the premise of the nuclear family being a mistake, but how does it incorporate helicopter parenting?

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Re: Brooks: "The Nuclear Family was a Mistake"

Post by steveo73 »

It's an interesting article but it's all subjective and I don't see how one family situation is inherently better than another. I think it depends on the people in that situation and how they work together.

Social capital is also an interesting idea. I don't really buy it. I'm lucky to have a lot of positive relationships (friends and family) but I don't think those relationships would be the same if I was after something from those people. Just stating social capital to me sounds like playing games in interpersonal relationships which just sounds off to me.

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Re: Brooks: "The Nuclear Family was a Mistake"

Post by Gilberto de Piento »

George the original one wrote:
Thu Feb 13, 2020 8:11 pm
I mostly buy into the premise of the nuclear family being a mistake, but how does it incorporate helicopter parenting?
The helicopter is now nuclear powered. :)

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Re: Brooks: "The Nuclear Family was a Mistake"

Post by J_ »

@jp thanks for posting it. To shine light on social capital is so necessary in our ere-worlds. How much we try to become renaissanse men which are wide abeled, we still need friends/lovers and/or family to live. To share/mirror our stories, to calibrate our feelings and behavior. I think your observations about Boyle are spot on.

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Re: Brooks: "The Nuclear Family was a Mistake"

Post by jennypenny »

@GTOO -- I think helicopter parenting is a result of this. We (our GenX generation) grew up as so-called latch-key kids. As parents, I've observed my friends overcompensating for that with rules, not actual engagement. Kids have to stay at after school programs instead of walking home or to a friends house. They have ready-made parties at sports-zones or chuck e cheese, or whatever. They have over-organized activities. I don't think that necessarily replaces the social engagement and guidance that was lost with extended families and strong social institutions like church/civic groups.


@daylen -- "I'm not good at math." "I don't like to cook." "I have a black thumb." etc etc
We don't let people get away with those statements on the forum. You can Ti-Ne and Ni-Te me all you want ;) but at some point you have to realize that social engagement has been proven (over and over again) to make people healthier and happier. I'm not saying to deny your I-ness (I'm an 'I' -- 77% on MBTI), I'm only saying that you have to admit that it's needed albeit challenging and figure out a way to engage that doesn't make you crazy. Everyone does. That was kind of my initial point in the Boyle thread. I'm not a social butterfly so I need technology to communicate with people and maintain connections that are necessary to my well-being because that's how I make it work.

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Re: Brooks: "The Nuclear Family was a Mistake"

Post by Loner »

steveo73 wrote:
Thu Feb 13, 2020 11:15 pm
Social capital is also an interesting idea. I don't really buy it. I'm lucky to have a lot of positive relationships (friends and family) but I don't think those relationships would be the same if I was after something from those people. Just stating social capital to me sounds like playing games in interpersonal relationships which just sounds off to me.
Well, this is very true. Although I do buy into it, I have also felt a bit icky about the way certain people (not necessarily here) talk about social capital exactly for this reason. Thinking about social capital as social capital transforms the relationships into means, not ends. The thing with social capital is that you shouldn't consider it as social capital. When I help out a friend or family member, I don't go thinking "Yes! I indebted him to me of 1.5 favors!"

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Re: Brooks: "The Nuclear Family was a Mistake"

Post by Ego »

jennypenny wrote:
Fri Feb 14, 2020 7:00 am
...at some point you have to realize that social engagement has been proven (over and over again) to make people healthier and happier.
No surprise here but I agree.

It is no coincidence that the depression epidemic happened just as the post-nuclear family atomization toward the individual occurred.

I would love to see a study on depression/anxiety levels as adults by the number of siblings you shared a bedroom with as a kid.

Last week I was a bit frustrated because I noticed that every time I go to the Y I get stuck in a long conversation with one friend or another and end up cutting my workout short. So much so that yesterday I hopped on the scooter and buzzed to a different Y where I promptly ran into a friend who also works at my branch. We both laughed when we saw one another, knowing exactly what we were up to.

I am getting ready to go there now and I know I will run into at least a dozen people who I know well enough to discuss important details of our lives. All before 5:30am.

Quasi extended families are out there. We just need to seek them out.

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Re: Brooks: "The Nuclear Family was a Mistake"

Post by jacob »

You guys are thinking "too middle class" wrt the "social capital" concept. The middle class tends to be transactional: "You do something for me. I pay you or immediately do an equal favor for you." The middle class always seeks to transact at arms-length or eliminate obligations. This system sacrifices resilience for flexibility.

It's more resilient to adopt the values of the "working class" here which focuses more on continuous flow than transactional stock: "I help you. Maybe next time you help me. (Or maybe not.)" You can see this behavior when someone brings you cookies. That's a test to see if you're worth adding to the network. When you bring some cookies back, you're added to the network (flow). You didn't pay back the first cookies to end the obligation. This system sacrifices flexibility for resilience.

The "upper class" operate in the same way as the working class but in informational favors. The modern middle class way of thinking is in many ways the odd one out.

All families are different but family arrangements will usually be some kind of combination of the two. Relatives are already part of the network on account of being family and there's probably some stock on account of past history. OTOH, because of this, there can also be conflicts.

TL;DR - Social capital encompasses both stocks, flows, and networking effects.

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Re: Brooks: "The Nuclear Family was a Mistake"

Post by tonyedgecombe »

jennypenny wrote:
Fri Feb 14, 2020 7:00 am
but at some point you have to realize that social engagement has been proven (over and over again) to make people healthier and happier.
I'd love to see some of that work separated out between introverts and extroverts. In my case I'm pretty sure a little social contact goes a long way.

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