“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. We’ve made life better for adults but worse for children. We’ve moved from big, interconnected, and extended families, which helped protect the most vulnerable people in society from the shocks of life, to smaller, detached nuclear families (a married couple and their children), which give the most privileged people in society room to maximize their talents and expand their options. The shift from bigger and interconnected extended families to smaller and detached nuclear families ultimately led to a familial system that liberates the rich and ravages the working-class and the poor.” [Excerpt from David Brooks article, The Atlantic Magazine, March 2020]
When mariner worked in Taiwan he noticed that a large number of businesses were run by families. In fact, the government encouraged single tier businesses – the opposite of American mergers and vertical expansion. It was not an issue when a cousin or other relative was accepted into the family business.
The common class in Taiwan at the time did not present to mariner a class that had extra cash. Owning an automobile was exceptional; with very few exceptions, restaurants were simple storefronts with a few tables put on the sidewalk each day; the buildings themselves were minimal, hardly more than a car garage. Major shopping areas crowded under large, open-sided roofs. Mariner once shopped for houseplants from an older couple set up under a larger building’s Sun canopy; their merchandise was very nice specimens that numbered less than two dozen pots.
Having read David Brooks’ article, mariner has a new insight why the culture, the neighborhoods, the businesses appeared almost cash starved. In hindsight, the culture seemed stable, even content; large families were often seen crowding the narrow residential side streets in Tainan, one of Taiwan’s larger cities. The payoff to Taiwan families was that a family business was able to support three generations, often laterally across family branches. Mariner doesn’t remember seeing any nursing homes or retirement homes. The family provided these services.
Interestingly, Taiwan at the time had the seventh largest investment holdings among the world’s nations. These investments, at the root, were the savings of the family businesses. Insurance was too expensive; flamboyant entertainment (for citizens) was too expensive. The happiness of life existed within the large families.
David points to virtually the same cultural picture in the United States in the early 1800s. 75 percent of work was on farms; it took large families to run a small farm efficiently. In both situations, Taiwan and the US in 1800, cash was not a central device for local commerce; it was labor, trade and self-sustained security against life’s surprises.
The history of the US moving forward from 1800 is one of increasing cash as a way to leverage relatively expensive needs in the marketplace. Vertical corporate models easily monopolize cash flow over large segments of life. Large corporations capture more and more control of public life requiring more and more cash to be available for a small family to guarantee functions like schooling, health and retirement. In the US culture, trading for services is virtually unheard of.
Is the nuclear family, locked into a cash for services economy, beneficial?