The result was a horror: violent crime, gangs taking over the elevators, the erosion of family and neighborly life. And yet in at least one respect, the new families Americans are forming would look familiar to our hunter-gatherer ancestors from eons ago. From 1890 to 1960, the average age of first marriage dropped by 3.6 years for men and 2.2 years for women. In 1980, only 12 percent of Americans lived in multigenerational households. If you want to summarize the changes in family structure over the past century, the truest thing to say is this: We’ve made life freer for individuals and more unstable for families. The constellation of forces that had briefly shored up the nuclear family began to fall away, and the sheltered family of the 1950s was supplanted by the stressed family of every decade since. Most of the other quarter worked in small family businesses, like dry-goods stores. Extended families have two great strengths. But while extended families have strengths, they can also be exhausting and stifling.

Among Americans ages 18 to 55, only 26 percent of the poor and 39 percent of the working class are currently married. The real victims were the young boys who had to shoot somebody to get into a family, their gang. “Despite the forces working to separate us—slavery, Jim Crow, forced migration, the prison system, gentrification—we have maintained an incredible commitment to each other,” Mia Birdsong, the author of the forthcoming book How We Show Up, told me recently. A rising feminist movement helped endow women with greater freedom to live and work as they chose. You have less space to make your own way in life. That meant that men and women married later than in other parts of the world, only after they had saved enough money to set up an independent home. Upkeep is a shared responsibility. The two-parent nuclear family has become less prevalent, and pre-American and European family forms have become more common. Common, a real-estate-development company that launched in 2015, operates more than 25 co-housing communities, in six cities, where young singles can live this way. It’s the empty suburban street in the middle of the day, maybe with a lone mother pushing a baby carriage on the sidewalk but nobody else around.

In 2015, The New York Times ran an article called “The Lonely Death of George Bell,” about a family-less 72-year-old man who died alone and rotted in his Queens apartment for so long that by the time police found him, his body was unrecognizable. Maybe even too religious. That way of life, went the thinking, ended when industrialization wrenched rural folk away from their cottages and villages into the teeming, anonymous city, sent men into the factories, and consigned women to domestic drudgery. But the blunt fact is that the nuclear family has been crumbling in slow motion for decades, and many of our other problems—with education, mental health, addiction, the quality of the labor force—stem from that crumbling. She opened her home to young kids who might otherwise join gangs. We’ve seen the rise of opioid addiction, of suicide, of depression, of inequality—all products, in part, of a family structure that is too fragile, and a society that is too detached, disconnected, and distrustful. By the time I joined them, roughly 25 kids were having dinner every Thursday night, and several of them were sleeping in the basement. The sexual revolution has come and gone, and it’s left us with no governing norms of family life, no guiding values, no articulated ideals. (For that matter, think of how the affluent can hire therapists and life coaches for themselves, as replacement for kin or close friends.) In 1960, roughly 5 percent of children were born to unmarried women.

It’s the people in your life who want you in theirs; the ones who accept you for who you are. Now marriage is primarily about adult fulfillment.”, Read: An interview with Eli Finkel on how we expect too much from our romantic partners, This cultural shift was very good for some adults, but it was not so good for families generally. Ever since I started working on this article, a chart has been haunting me.

Eventually family inequality even undermines the economy the nuclear family was meant to serve: Children who grow up in chaos have trouble becoming skilled, stable, and socially mobile employees later on. According to a 2012 report from the National Center for Health Statistics, college-educated women ages 22 to 44 have a 78 percent chance of having their first marriage last at least 20 years.

But then they ignore one of the main reasons their own families are stable: They can afford to purchase the support that extended family used to provide—and that the people they preach at, further down the income scale, cannot. We all know stable and loving single-parent families.

Usually behavior changes before we realize that a new cultural paradigm has emerged. During this period, a certain family ideal became engraved in our minds: a married couple with 2.5 kids. This particular family is the one depicted in Barry Levinson’s 1990 film, Avalon, based on his own childhood in Baltimore. But on average, children of single parents or unmarried cohabiting parents tend to have worse health outcomes, worse mental-health outcomes, less academic success, more behavioral problems, and higher truancy rates than do children living with their two married biological parents. According to work by Richard V. Reeves, a co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution, if you are born into poverty and raised by your married parents, you have an 80 percent chance of climbing out of it. They’ve tried to increase marriage rates, push down divorce rates, boost fertility, and all the rest. Now about 40 percent are. On the Alaskan North Slope, the Inupiat name their children after dead people, and those children are considered members of their namesake’s family. One leaves for a job in a different state. It plots the percentage of people living alone in a country against that nation’s GDP. Nearly half of black families are led by an unmarried single woman, compared with less than one-sixth of white families. Steven Ruggles, a professor of history and population studies at the University of Minnesota, calls these “corporate families”—social units organized around a family business. Courtney E. Martin, a writer who focuses on how people are redefining the American dream, is a Temescal Commons resident. The return of multigenerational living arrangements is already changing the built landscape.

That way we are mobile, unattached, and uncommitted, able to devote an enormous number of hours to our jobs. For women, the nuclear-family structure imposes different pressures.

In his book The Lost City, the journalist Alan Ehrenhalt describes life in mid-century Chicago and its suburbs: Finally, conditions in the wider society were ideal for family stability. They have a shared courtyard and a shared industrial-size kitchen where residents prepare a communal dinner on Thursday and Sunday nights. After the meal, there are piles of plates in the sink, squads of children conspiring mischievously in the basement. According to the AARP, 35 percent of Americans over 45 say they are chronically lonely. Over the past two generations, the physical space separating nuclear families has widened.

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