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  • Creating a modern form of the type of family ecosystem that existed in the preindustrial era is not likely unless the household once again becomes a functionally substantive entity. Tweet This
  • Nothing would strengthen the family more than making it a place of real social and economic productivity again, something that does things for us that we can’t just buy in the marketplace. Tweet This
  • The social distancing required by the Coronavirus gives us an opportunity to start rethinking our homes. Tweet This

David Brooks’ Atlantic cover story arguing that the nuclear family was a mistake has generated much discussion focused on the structure of the family. But an equally important aspect of the story is the change in what the family household does. Once the fundamental economic and social unit of society, the household now no longer does much, which helps explain why the transitions in family structure that Brooks noted occurred.

Early in his piece, Brooks cites Steven Ruggles as saying that in 1800, 90% of American families were corporate families. But note how this was defined, not in an extended vs. nuclear family way, but as “social units organized around a family business.” This is the pre-industrial structure of the household.

In that pre-industrial era, the household was the primary economic unit of society. Most production took place within households, especially agricultural households in a predominantly rural society. (America itself did not reach 50% urban until 1920. As recently as 1910, 90% of the world’s population still lived in rural and village environments).

Columbia University professor Ann Douglas described pre-industrial life this way:

In 1800, by any reckoning, America, North as well as South, was an agricultural nation. Only six percent of its population of five million lived in towns of 2,500 or more; only New York and Philadelphia could have over 50,000 inhabitants. The common productive unit was the rural household; the processing and preserving of food, candlemaking, soap making, spinning, weaving, shoemaking, quilting, rugmaking, and many other activities all took place on domestic premises. Although extra income might be sought through the sale of produce and goods, such households were more or less self-sufficient. Buying and selling, when it occurred, was often conducted on a barter basis.

Note that in this pre-industrial household, both the husband and the wife were economically productive. They had different roles and functions in the family, but the woman’s work in the home was a key part of the household’s overall economic production. 

This household was not only an economic unit. It was a social unit that performed, often in concert with other nearby potentially related households, many other functions that are today provided by the marketplace or government: education (often vocational in nature), health care, mutual aid (the social safety net), governance (e.g., the New England town meeting), and even policing and defense, as in the case of the Old West posse.  In the pre-industrial era, the household, while varying in form and function widely across places and times, was a much more substantive entity than it is today.

With industrialization and urbanization, the household economy declined. The husband went to work as an employee of a company, and the wife either did so as well or was often reduced to a homemaker. Women still did work in the home, but it was fundamentally different from before. Much of industrial-era labor in the home is essentially uncompensated auxiliary tasks needed to make the industrial marketplace, the site of most actual production, function. Radical social theorist Ivan Illich labeled this “shadow work.” Feminists aren’t wrong to note that this is a kind of “uncompensated labor.” 

In the industrial age, the goods and services of life are no longer provisioned at home but purchased from the market. At the same time, governments also annexed a significant number of other functions, such as education and the safety net, that were previously in whole or in part household functions.  These changes brought vastly increased wealth, but at the cost of dependency. The household was no longer mostly self-sufficient.

These changes reduced the modern household to a childrearing and consumption cooperative, held together primarily by emotional not functional bonds. In the past, being part of a family-based household was almost a necessity for survival for most people.  Today, it is another consumer product, one you only opt into–and stay in–if you perceive that the benefits outweigh the costs or if it suits your fancy. While there are continued practical benefits from being in a family, it is possible to substitute for many of them with cash. This helps explain the chart showing a correlation between higher GDP and living alone that haunts Brooks—and the detachment from the ecosystem of extended family networks that he wrote about.

Creating a modern form of the type of family ecosystem that existed in the preindustrial era is not likely unless the household once again becomes a functionally substantive entity. But Brooks is right to note that you can’t roll back the clock. While a few intrepid souls might seek a self-sufficient life “off the grid,” that won’t work for most of us. 

The Grapes of Wrath offers a cautionary tale of the consequences of attempting to adhere to the old ways when a new system is in effect. The Joads, a small extended family representing the last vestiges of the preindustrial era, were remorselessly crushed by a modern mechanized, industrial society that literally “tractored” them off their land. Andrew Lytle’s Southern agrarian essay, “The Hind Tit,” tells much the same story.

Just as Brooks notes that we will be forced out of necessity to develop new forms of family-type relationships, we must also find new ways to restore productivity and function to the household in a modern manner in our present context. Many Americans are getting a new experience of their households right now, as kids are home from closed schools, parents are working from home, and the fragility created by our dependency on the functioning of the marketplace is suddenly made real. For many, this is a rare experience of the entire family being physically present together in the household for an extended period of time. The social distancing required by the coronavirus gives us an opportunity to start rethinking our homes. 

We’ve already seen various attempts to start doing this, as people have sensed that something has been lost. Homeschooling is the best example of repatriating functions to the household. So is the trend towards hipster agriculture,  such as starting organic farms or raising backyard chickens or bees.  Religious figures are often at the forefront of this. Presbyterian pastor C. R. Wiley has written multiple books about restoring economic productivity to the household. And Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” idea also has aspects of household renewal. 

These are just nascent developments at present, but nothing would strengthen the family more than making it a place of real social and economic productivity again, something that does things for us that we can’t just buy in the marketplace.

Aaron M. Renn is the publisher of the Masculinist, a newsletter about Christianity, masculinity, and the modern world.