Families In Hard Times
Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in. —Robert Frost
Family life is in the midst of big changes.
It’s partly that cultural norms are shifting—women are increasingly the family’s breadwinners, and campaigns for same-sex marriage have been building public acceptance of gay and lesbian-led households. Today, you can live with your partner, marry your same-sex sweetheart, or stay single and help another family raise their children.
But it’s the Great Recession that is making the isolated family living in a suburban McMansion nearly obsolete. Families are losing the homes that had represented a step up the ladder to security. Unemployed workers are averaging six months without work, nearly double the average for any time since World War II. Median household wealth has decreased by 20 percent since 2007. Retirement savings have evaporated, and now Social Security is under attack.
Economists wring their hands about the failure of American families to continue the decades-long shopping spree that fueled economic growth by converting nature’s bounty into mountains of throw-away stuff.
But many American families know something the economists don’t understand. Going into debt to buy all that stuff made us less secure and less happy, not more. Whether out of wisdom or necessity, nearly two-thirds of households have cut their spending since the beginning of the Great Recession.
The research is clear on this: It’s not more spending, it’s the richness of our relationships that is key to our well-being.
This issue of YES! Magazine explores our changing sense of family. As economic security erodes, fragmented families are coming back together. Many are rebuilding extended families like those that were the norm through most of human history—2.6 million more Americans lived in multi-generational families in 2008 than in 2007.
People are looking for ways to rebuild family and community support networks that have been lost in our fragmented society.
The fact that extended families and community are making a comeback doesn’t mean a return to the old cultural norms, though. As more moms work outside the home, there’s increasing acceptance of stay-at-home dads. And nearly half of Americans now believe same-sex couples should have the right to marry. Cohousing and other shared housing options offer more choices for building an extended family life. And the “go local” movement is encouraging people to look to their neighborhoods for sources of food, companionship, and security.
In hard times, families and neighborhoods of all varieties offer some buffering from an unforgiving economy. Now that there are more ways we can be part of a family, we have more opportunities to offer our gifts to people we love. Who better to read to a toddler or counsel a prickly pre-teen than a grandparent? How else to help a young graduate or an unemployed partner make it through a period of no income? Who else will listen to an elder, even when he tells the same story over and over?
Families—and the communities that support them—don’t fix us. Ideally, they accept us as we are, warts, unemployment, feuds, and all. And as we turn to each other to give and receive support, we discover strengths we might not otherwise know we had.
Sarah van Gelder wrote this article for What Happy Families Know, the Winter 2011 issue of YES! Magazine. Sarah is executive editor of YES!
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