My immoral, non-therapeutic Deist friend was kind enough to send an article my way from The Times a few days ago on the subject of "Emerging Adulthood". Experience has taught me to approach anything "Emerging" with caution.* However, the author did make some important points on the direction that American family life has been taking recently and the psychological effects this is going to have, especially on 'twentysomethings'. My friend summed it up better than I could:
The article is premised on the idea that you grow up, leave at
18, married and job by early 20's . . .which was the life, true, that
our parents and grandparents and perhaps great-grandparents lived, and
it was the more normal state of affairs for 20th century America.
But that's a 'normal' state of affairs for a very small bit of the
world in a very small bit of human history. As I've mentioned to you,
in Macedonia extended families live together their whole lives,
perhaps not happily, but functional. It's unpleasant for the teenagers
and twenty-somethings, but probably the best possible situation for
raising children in the first place, with grandmother always there
cooking and the old uncles offering card games and life advice. Or so
Could this be an emerging American expression of this sentiment? Sure,
kids would like to live off their parents. But could it also mean
that, given the economic circumstances (and of course, the fruits of
the sexual revolution which delay marriage), that children don't feel
the need to break up the family structure so soon, and would be happy
to add to it in an extended way?
I am inclined to agree with my friend. As disheartening as this might seem the traditional American conception of family, we must remember that there is an even greater tradition preceding our own, which admits a great many more generations of a family than ours currently does.
Life today for the twentysomething graduating college seems very fractured. I have experienced this firsthand. Nothing puts a wet blanket over your future plans as much as the prospect of moving back in with your parents, or in my case, my parent.
One of the points this article didn't address to my satisfaction is the effect the increasing number of live-at-home twentysomethings is going to have on the parents. Congruent to the former trend of the child leaving home for better prospects has been an increase in the psychological condition most commonly called "empty nest syndrome". Parents are left with the prospect of having no one to care for, now that their children have become autonomous. They have been set free from a great burden, yet at the same time, they have nothing conrete to fill the gap which has been left open. This is the period where mid-life crises and divorces are most likely. I've had to experience one myself, as one of my parents went through four different living arrangements in the space of five years. Their latest designs for a house have been, thankfully, postponed for the moment. But now that their children have found permanent job prospects harder and harder to come by, adults must help support them as they return home, and any inclinations to burst out are squashed. **
But we must ask (as my friend has said), now that there has been this reestablishment of a vertical relationship in the family beyond the merely formative years, should it not extend even further? Must the immediate family only consist of parents and children? And as long as the family unit encompasses the grandparents [and greats and so forth], what is stopping it from becoming horizontal as well as vertical? Should we return to the model which has been the norm for most of Western Civilization up until very recently - the large family, or clan? Fr. Franz Schmidberger has this to say about our former paring of the size of the family, and its results:
" . . .Our modern consumer society looks upon grandparents as a burden; there is no space for them in the house and they are subsequently packed off to the nursing home. The family of three generations is reduced to a mere two, and this impoverishment in terms of human warmth causes pain to the children. Hence they, too, leave home at an early stage to seek out a room or an apartment of their own, and the family of two generations quickly dwindles to one. The parents are left with an empty nest, but the development does not end there. Now living as singles, the children soon discover they are not meant for solitude and promptly cast around for other young people to share their hobbies and their time with them. They want to have fun with their peers, and this desire results in the genesis of a new type of "family", such as communes and, in the worst cases, rock bands. These young people will stick together and defend their interests with their own lives if need be. The traditional family has gone out the window, and what can come in the door but a totally contorted alternative!" (Franz Schmidberger, "Family and Education in Today's World", The Angelus, November 2007)
Could the current sociological situation be a reverse in this trend, a 'reinvesting' of human warmth in the family? The presence of "sisters and cousins whom we reckon by the dozens and our aunts" might seem overpowering to our current conception of two parents, one point five kids. Even Macedonian teenagers, as my friend mentions, chafe at sharing space with so many of their relatives. Yet with a 'clan' of these proportions under one roof, domestic responsibilities and decision-making will not be such a monumental job as they are now.
Large clans tend towards delegation of work - everyone learning to 'pull their own weight'. Different family members will have different strengths and weaknesses; the presence of more family relieves the burden placed on a smaller family to do so many jobs. Plus, common goals will lead towards greater bonds between And we need not limit this to the sense of cooking meals and doing laundry. As my friend pointed out, grandparents and uncles will help in the social education of the younger set. As parents are engaged in their work, the elderly will be free to watch over the children and impart to them the wisdom which comes through age. Grandparents will have the opportunity to instill the traditions of their family at the very least and those of the community on a larger scale. Furthermore, supporting our grandparents in this way is a much more humane approach than the common desire to send grandparents off to a nursing home where they will end up out of sight - and out of mind.
Finally, we should consider this from the viewpoint of investment at home. Are parents, faced with housing their children as well as their parents and their close relatives, more likely to proceed to abandon their current homes in hopes of moving out to a housing development and investing in a bland, throwaway McMansion? One would hope not. The need for stability in such an environment should reinforce the instincts of thriftiness, patience, and humility. People won't go for quickly disposable houses, but will trade in for permanence. They will want something that will last longer, and when it does decay they can invest their own time and money into the home maintenance, thereby through the 'sweat of their brow' making the house a symbolic part of the family. They will want something they can hand down to their children, a house that has acquired the personality of the family, something that it would be undreamable to abandon for another home.
The nuclear family in America has achieved critical mass, in many ways. The bonds that once held it firmly together - public opinion, inheritance, ancestral ties - are being eroded. What we have now in the return of the twentysomethings' homecoming is an opportunity of sorts to start rebuilding it. Who's to say that bigger families won't help in the restoration of all the above? Taken again from Fr. Schmidberger, it must be remembered that "the common good of a family [. . .] is their mutual harmony as they dwell together in an ambience of peace and joy that allows individuals to develop freely and without material cares. The bonum commune ranks above the bonum individuale." Perhaps the reestablishment of the bonum commune on the small scale of the family can eventually help bring about a greater sense of the bonum commune in our nation in the days to come.
* Too many videos from Health Class about "Your Emerging Manhood". You know the type. Plus, there's the whole Emerging Church business that is (hopefully) slowly dying out.
**Mind you, I am not taking credit for directly influencing such decisions on the parts of my parents, and I, as well as any self-respecting twentysomething, is looking toward gainful employment. I am often curious as to what tension I must pose for my parents. Still, tension has this effect on emotion, in that it delays and defers rash action, quite often into reflection.