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Brief History: The American Family

2 minute read
Josh Sanburn

Every family has its ups and downs. The American family has booms and busts. Since the economic downturn took hold in 2008, birth and marriage rates have fallen to all-time lows, according to a recent report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. This comes after 4.3 million babies were born in 2007, the most ever. But while the recent ebb and flow of the American family has followed that of the stock market, the institution has been slowly and steadily evolving since the nation’s founding.

The American family’s structure in the 1700s was relatively egalitarian, as both husband and wife worked the farm and large numbers of children were needed to maintain agrarian productivity. The Industrial Revolution saw workers begin to migrate to urban areas, separating work from home for the first time. Children became economic burdens rather than contributors, wages started rising, and the idea of the man as breadwinner took off.

In the 1930s, the Great Depression triggered a drop in the birthrate, which picked up again with the onset of World War II. A long period of postwar prosperity resulted in the baby-boom generation, whose nine-to-five fathers and stay-at-home moms defined the ’50s. But the feminist movement of the ’60s and ’70s pushed for more women in the workplace and led to an increase in dual-income, absent-parent families.

Today, the nuclear family has largely been nuked. With so many single-parent households, gay couples adopting children and women either having fewer children or delaying childbirth, the modern family is all over the place. Recessions have remained the one consistent predictor of American family size, with dips in birth and marriage rates immediately following the 1981-82, 1990-91 and 2001 recessions as well as the current downturn. But as in the past, a bust will invariably give birth to another boom.

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