This is a tragic waste of human potential. Many of those grandparents could be lavishing love and support on their grandchildren and freeing up working-age people to do their jobs in an ailing economy, instead of passing their final days alone. And while these scenes are especially front and center under coronavirus lockdown, they’ve been playing out for years. They are the predictable fallout of the arrangement we call the nuclear family.
The nuclear family — a home populated by parents and children alone — is often considered the default human norm. But historically and across cultures, the extended family — multiple generations living together and sharing the burdens, pains and joys of domestic life — has been the true default. The nuclear family gradually became widespread only after the Industrial Revolution, when a centralized, factory-based economy made this smaller form of family economically advantageous, since it could uproot from extended families and follow work wherever it led.
In this initial iteration, husbands’ incomes could support an entire household, which wives, for the first time, were left to manage full time, entirely alone. But this division of labor is hardly the norm today, when a dual-breadwinner model is often required for household solvency. Children and the old still need to be cared for, of course — that didn’t go away simply because the realities of work have changed. But the rise of the two-breadwinner home has created a pass-the-baton arrangement, whereby many parents spend their time working for wages while paying someone else to mind their children.
Many dual-breadwinner families struggle to afford child care but have no realistic alternatives. Those who can afford it often pay strangers — nannies, au pairs, day-care centers — a large chunk of their income to watch their children, while also paying others — nursing homes and retirement communities — to, essentially, quarantine their elderly parents. These professional caregivers tend to be women, who in turn must find (often lower-quality) child care for their own children and parents while they provide bespoke care for the children or parents of the more well-to-do.
Again, this was not always the default, and it need not remain the default. In 1940, 25 percent of Americans lived in multigenerational homes. The number plummeted to 12 percent by 1980, the lowest in American history. But it has been climbing since, reaching 18 percent in 2012, largely powered by economic necessity after the Great Recession. While multigenerational living is increasing and might continue to increase during our present economic crisis, the isolation of older generations remains the cultural norm.
Shortly before the covid-19 pandemic, Columbia University’s school of public health said older Americans faced “an epidemic of loneliness,” citing an AARP survey that found 1 in 3 Americans age 50 to 80 reported feeling lonely. Social isolation is as great a health risk as the biggest predictors of dying from covid-19: smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and obesity.
It is clear enough that long before lockdown, our economic and cultural arrangements were putting tremendous pressure on every part of the nuclear family. Something has to give. But any attempt to push back against this reality needs to be deep and multipronged. A broad cultural shift, incorporating changes in both values and practical actions, is needed.
Government can help to make things more humane in the short run, by guaranteeing paid parental leave and access to high-quality child care, regardless of income, or even by paying a family member to stay home and care for a child during the first three years of life.
But even better and sturdier than good public policy is a remobilization of the resources and energies of a loving family. Older Americans came of age during the postwar boom, when the independence of the nuclear family was idealized, for reasons both commercial and cultural. The crucible of quarantine provides an ideal moment to reconsider this fetishization of independence and the flip-side assumption that interdependence is something to be ashamed of.
In truth, our interdependence is a good and beautiful part of being human.
In the months and years to come, Americans should reclaim the joys, advantages, burdens and pains of multigenerational living. The desire for things to return to normal is understandable, but this crisis has shined a light on just how dysfunctional American normality has become.