Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Nuclear Family Reconsidered, A Little Too Late?

NPR’s Michel Martin hosted an interesting story today titled “Enjoying an ‘Empty Nest’? Not So Fast,” that overviewed the growing number of young adults who are moving back in with their parents due to the recession, and the negative stigma that family model carries throughout most parts of the United States.

Not that the recession is insignificant in Hawaii. In fact, it’s been quite harmful. Still, I’ve always thought that some families in Hawaii might have an easier time coping with the recession since it’s far more socially acceptable for extended families to live together here, thereby allowing groups to share expenses and other possible burdens.

Of course during the 19th and 20th centuries, it wasn’t so simple. Capitalists and missionaries worked in tandem (sometimes unknowingly) to divide the extended family, forcing indigenous parents and their immediate children to live in solitude on privatized property, segregated from grandparents, aunties, uncles, cousins, and so on. Laws were even established and enforced that made it impossible for women to leave, let alone divorce, abusive husbands (Merry, 1999).

These forced changes in family dynamics and other colonial impositions notwithstanding, the preponderance of diverse Pacific Islander and Asian settler groups, along with the indigenous population, have kept the idea of an extended family living under one roof alive.

Said one of Martin’s guests, describing the present context in most of the continental U.S. that is causing the nuclear family to "break down" (not her words):

…for a lot of young people, they’re burdened with college debt. The cost of getting your first home is very high, so we’ve actually seen since the 1970s there’s actually been a 50% increase in the number of people…from 18 to their early 30s living with their parents, and so now we have a recession layered on top of that, where we have all these job losses. We’ve lost more than 5 million jobs since this recession began. So you put an existing trend together with the recession, and you’ve got a lot of this…. And then you layer in foreclosures, last year we had more than 3 million foreclosures…

While listening to Martin and her guests, I couldn’t help but think that the western emphasis on a nuclear family is hardly a majority perspective across the globe. Finally, Martin chimed in by saying:

You know, in much of the world this is not considered unusual. In fact our style is considered unusual. It’s considered customary for much of the world to live in intergenerational households until a child gets married off and even after a child gets married…

There's a ton more to unpack regarding Hawaii's colonial history, but sticking to this immediate issue, it kind of makes you wonder, who had it right from the start.

Merry, S.E. (1999). Colonizing Hawaii: The Cultural Power of Law. Princeton Univ Press.

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