However, the premise of this narrative can’t survive the cold light of history. Scholars now pretty much agree that the nuclear family household has been the “dominant form” in Western Europe and the United States since the dawn of the industrial era. In fact, demographic realities made extended families an impossibility. Brooks, citing family historian Steven Ruggles, states that “[u]ntil 1850, three-quarters of Americans older than 65 lived with their kids and grandkids.” That’s true, but it slides past the fact that there simply weren’t many 65-year-olds above ground; U.S. life expectancy stood at only 40 in 1850. In data published in a 1994 paper, Ruggles estimated that as of 1880, more than two-thirds of white couples, the large majority with children, lived in independent households. The anomaly was the extended family, not the nuclear family.
What about the black family, often held up by nuclear family doubters as a resilient alternative to the nuclear “white family?” True, after the Civil War, extended families made up a larger percentage of black households than they did white. But those families were still the minority: Ruggles estimates that extended families were only 22.5% of black households in 1880; the number climbed till about 1940, but it never went above 26 percent. Far more prevalent among blacks was the nuclear model: 57% of black households were married couples, the large majority of them with children.
As demographics changed, the dominant family form did not. Rising life expectancy and falling fertility starting in the latter half of the 19th century meant more surviving grandparents available for a smaller number of couple households. But the share of households with extended families stayed more or less the same. It seems that people preferred the privacy and independence of the nuclear form—despite all its disadvantages.
Brooks doesn’t talk about marriage in “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake,” yet the inextinguishable human urge for pair bonding (and its associated childbearing) helps explain both the persistence of the nuclear family and the problems that plague its alternative communal forms.