Communication Breakdown: The Disappearing American Family

Look around you right now. Depending on who is reading you may be a millennial still living under your parent’s roof. You may be a middle aged parent still taking care of your adult children. You may yell “okay boomer” at your 60 year old neighbor who hangs a Trump sign on his front lawn.

We live under economic times that are so drastically different than the past century. The average new college student will be paying student loans for the next three to four decades. The average home price in many parts of the country now costs upwards of half a million dollars. You often hear political pundits from the left claiming that millennials can’t afford college or healthcare because of the evil wealthy members of society. You hear from the right that millennials are spoiled rotten and need to toughen up.

Perhaps the greater tragedy that both sides of the aisle fail to recognize or understand is the disappearance of American family, or better yet family values and all that the word “family” used to represent.

“The family is an endangered species in this country. The idea of how a family aught to work or a reason for it to even exist. I think there is a nostalgia for family as an institution, rapidly fading away.” — Frank Zappa (1991)

When you look at old photographs from the past and you get the feeling that people were happier or enjoying themselves, it’s because they were. They were happier because there was a family unit. It gave someone purpose or identity. They knew where they came from so they had a support system. In the modern world this support system has taken away.

Large families were once a common occurrence in American neighborhoods and cities. You knew the name of each person on the block. You understood you belonged to a community of purpose and ideas. I have not personally spoken to my neighbors in over a decade, because there is no sense of belonging or responsibility that you belong to something more important than yourself.

The shrinking family phenomena is directly proportionate to the choices millennials have made whether they were forced or not. We have now had the chance to study the millennial for three decades and the results are in and they are not looking good. We are choosing to succeed at the workplace much later on in life, and we are not moving out of our parents homes until at least the age of 30. We are choosing not to marry and have kids until our mid 30’s and 40’s. The average age for marriage in the year 2019 was 28 years old nationwide and as high as 36 years old in some regions.

This has also reached the public education, as community has been taken out of the classroom. Men and women are told instead of finding a good paying job out of high school or learning how to form a good relationship, that you must go to college under no questions asked. A masters degree in many careers is now an expectation rather than an outlier. High school classes that prepared students for raising a family and basic skills were taken out of school. Many students don’t even understand the concept of dating anymore. The concept of a school yearbook designed by the students, the class ring, class song, prom queen, and school dances and school bands are vanishing. This sense of community is quickly vanishing.

North Attleboro, Massachusetts High School Class Of ’59 Yearbook “Best Of” Page Section.

The dinner table is noticeably smaller too and holidays have become a meaningless skeleton of what they once represented. Kids growing up today laugh at words like figgy pudding and mistletoe. It almost sounds like a sexual harassment charge waiting to happen. Perhaps the greatest sign of the times would be the disappearance of pianos in the American household. You don’t need a piano to entertain if you have no family that needs entertaining. You don’t need giant cookbooks if you don’t have many guests to feed. Does anyone have a dining room in their home anymore? We don’t need to know cursive because we simply don’t write to each other anymore. Does anyone keep a “pen pal” or even know how to write an informal letter?

Maybe the saddest part of all is how quickly we as a society accepted this as the new normal. It did not happen overnight, but surprisingly so few Americans today recognize the crisis that we have at our hands. We face losing our entire identity or culture as a nation. Family is the most important foundation for anyone to have, and it truly breaks my heart to witness what we don’t have today. You can't miss something you never had.

When you hear the word great what do you think of? Yes we are living longer today, but there is noticeably less life in the years. America is no longer great, and I think we should make America great again. No that is not a cheap political slogan, and no I am not about to tell you to vote for a Republican. We are missing the greats in our family because we are choosing not to have families. We are choosing not to get married or form relationships because we are told we should have other priorities. It was called extended relatives.

My relatives enjoying an Italian picnic in the park at Salem Pioneer Village, in the year 1940.

It was once common to have many large families of great uncles, aunts, cousins, and grandparents. Pictured above is my family in 1940. At one table my great great grandfather, my great grandfather, and my grandmother. My great great grandfather would live long enough to see his granddaughter’s children. This is almost unheard of in the 21st century, and it’s because the next generation of Americans are putting off raising families. This is not the exception today this is the norm.

My grandparents married at the age of 18 in East Boston in 1960 out of high school. My grandparents were 21 years old when my mother was born. My grandfather got a job as a locksmith out of high school, and still works for the same company in the year 2020. He is my last surviving grandfather. This scenario is completely unheard of today, and it has changed the landscape of families and culture in a way that is extremely unfortunate.

The median household income of a working class family in 1960 was $5600. Adjusted for inflation that is around $50,000. In 2019 the average household income was $60,000. So wages have gone up 20% in 60 years. Average house prices have gone up 500% in that same time span. 300% increase in college tuition and fees. Car prices have gone up by 200% since. If wages had kept up with the cost of living from 1960, the average working class family would be making between $200,000 and $250,000 a year. These are not the opinions of of the intellectual left, these are the facts.

We have also seen this with a 40% decline in small business entrepreneurship in the last century. Americans are less connected to their family owned local businesses that once dominated the economy. This has also been paired with a decline in local newspaper subscriptions, as Americans increasingly get their news from cable television and do their shopping online. In consequence getting married is not as large of an ordeal as it once was. It was once common to have your wedding make the front page of your newspaper. It was once common to have wedding celebrations and company picnics put on by the local company you worked for in your community. The same went for restaurants and grocery stores. There were even sections called messengers or personals to find out what your neighbors did that week. People wanted to know each other.

Herald News of New Jersey weekly newly wedded section from August 24, 1949.

American are also moving out of small towns and into large urban cities to further their professional careers where they are less likely to raise families. As of 2018 there were 19,495 incorporated cities, towns and villages in the United States. 14,768 or 75% of these are considered small towns which have populations below 5,000 people. In the year 1950 45% of the United States population lived in a small town. In 2018 that dropped to 20%.

Opinion | Small-Town America Is Dying. How Can We Save It?

“Everybody’s goin’ away, said they’re movin’ to LA. They said this town’s a waste of time, I guess they’re right, it’s wastin’ mine.” — James O’Keefe (Good Time Charlie’s Got The Blues)

In many ways the realities of the modern economy post recession have been taking a toll on the choices millennials are making. Many are choosing not to have kids or buy a home in their 20’s simply because they cannot afford to. If you were to explain the reason for the change of attitude, it would be fair to say that economic factors have played a huge role in the shrinking family. Many middle aged parents today are facing up to the reality that they may be raising kids into their 60's and unfortunately this is now the new normal and its not going away anytime soon.

Yes it is your right not to have kids, but understand the implications of what it means to settle down later in life. By the time you have the day of your wedding your parents may very well be almost in their 70’s. By the time you have your first child, your parents may not even be alive or not for long. Your children will have zero cousins or zero concept of what it means to have a family reunion. They will have no other relatives they can talk to for support. Their existence will have no basis in reality or meaningful structure.

The days of having large families spanning three or four generations are over. This phenomenon has only occurred sadly in America for the most part. It is still common in many eastern parts of the world to witness four or five generations of families staying together for their entire lives. Family is substantially more important and essential in other cultures. In India, Russia, Japan, Middle East, Europe family is much more valued.

Family is simply no longer cherished in the western world. Family institutions have crumbled to the ground such as church, country clubs, bowling teams, boy scouts, astronomy clubs, and parent-teacher association’s. Civic involvement and neighborhood engagement is at an all time low in America, and you can feel it just driving down the road. You sense something is missing that we all desperately want to bring back. A sense of belonging and a sense of worth that community and family can give to each other. This is something we have lost.

“Membership records of such diverse organizations as the PTA, the Elks club, the League of Women Voters, the Red Cross, labor unions, and even bowling leagues show that participation in many conventional voluntary associations has declined by roughly 25 percent to 50 percent over the last two to three decades. Surveys show sharp declines in many measures of collective political participation, including attending a rally or speech (off 36 percent between 1973 and 1993), attending a meeting on town or school affairs (off 39 percent), or working for a political party (off 56 percent).” — The American Prospect

For maybe the most tragic of all is that we have stopped talking to each other. I can’t remember the last time I got a Christmas card from a distant relative let alone my actual neighbors. When was the last time you met or hung out with your extended family? The closer reality is that even though technology appears to be brining us closer together, we are pshyically farther apart than ever before. There is simply no communication that is happening in the modern world. Who would I even invite to a wedding?

We don’t care about our neighbors or their children. We don’t invite each other over our homes for dinner. We don’t look up to wave or even shake hands. We can’t even make eye contact because it would be too weird. We have lost that form communication. It is for that reason I say the family is disappearing. Increasingly more youth today have no concept of that word. It is an empty shallow word that bears no responsibility, and simply because many are finding it impossible to begin their lives at an early age.

Neighborhood cookout for the local astronomy club, in Westford, MA August 16th, 1980.

It used to be called a block party. What ever happened to those? Where families would close down entire blocks of a neighborhood to throw a giant party, just to celebrate relationship and community. My parents tell me many stories of growing up and being invited to giant cookouts and wedding anniversaries. We made a bigger deal out of the people we interacted with. We truly wanted to get to know humans on a deeper level. In modern times we lock our doors and close our shades. The sound of fireworks brings to mind the sound of a mass shooter on the loose or a terrorist attack around the corner. We can forget about hitch hiking because you are probably a serial killer. Americans are living in more anxiety and fear today, and this has been pressed into our subconscious so that we no longer trust each other.

Old television shows from the past don’t make much sense either compared with modern times. Why would a bunch of strangers barge into each other’s apartments unannounced on the 1988–1998 sitcom Seinfeld? Why would a group of friends be constantly hanging out in each other’s homes in that 90’s sitcom Friends? In fact, do we even have family sitcoms on television anymore like Andy Griffith, All In The Family, Jeffersons, Sanford & Son, Happy Days, Lavern & Shirley, Cheers? Shows that revolved around a sense of community or family in some form, that was even filmed in front of a live studio audiance.

The greater question is our we prepared for this new normal? Are we willing to accept the fact that great relatives will soon become extinct as Americans stop getting married and having children? Are we willing to look ourselves in the mirror and say this is the world we want to leave our children? A society that values material objects and career status over forming relationships?

Some critics say that perhaps this is the biological clock of the human race all together. That fertility rates are dropping, and nature is signaling that we are too overpopulated to begin with. Still it doesn’t mean we need to close ourselves off which alarmingly is the trend that is happening. Are we becoming a sheltered and anxious species behind our technology?

Social media allows us to harass and hide behind a perfect disguise. You can customize your profile picture and only show the photos you want other people to see. You can make yourself whoever you want to be without ever having to face the real world. When you do face the real world it is more difficult than hiding behind a computer screen, so you show your fear with anger to keep others away and isolating ourselves. Where as maybe in the past people did not have that excuse to hide behind a computer. We were forced to interact with each other with long conversations and picking up the phone when we didn’t even know who was on the other line. We had to speak long distances by having human relationships with operators and waiting in line to use the public phone booth.

Shopping at a convenient store asking for a map on their way to see Apollo 14 launch in 1971.

If you wanted to buy something, you had to go to a physical store and have human connections with the employees and other customers. Now you can hide behind a keyboard and purchase anything you want with websites like Amazon. Without ever having to leave the home. Why risk getting shot at the mall? In the 21st century, places like Sears can’t even survive the new wave You don’t have to buy movie tickets to go to the theatre. You can sit at home in your underpants and watch a movie marathon with your remote. Why would you want to risk getting shot at the movie theatre by a mass shooter? It’s so much easier just to rent through Netflix or Hulu, we don’t even need Blockbusters. I really do believe these industries grew out of a fear of real communication after we have witnessed multiple terrorist attacks and mass shootings. I’ve seen mall shoppers leave to the parking lot after the El Paso shooting. That is the sad reality of a world of instant information.

Cellphones have played into the economy by giving us a new way to stay connected to our jobs after we leave the workplace. Before this century if your boss needed to get in contact with you and you weren’t a very important person, you would see them tomorrow. Texting and emails have allowed workplaces to harass employees after hours, and I call it harassment if you are not getting paid for it. Be honest? How many people talk on the phone or text their bosses while they drive. I’ve seen drivers responding to an email at the red light. This world is more fast paced and stressful than ever before.

So you look at older photographs, and you get the sense that people were happier or less angry, it’s because they were. Life was slower in the last century. There was less fear that a plane was going to fly into your office, or that you were going to be gunned down in a classroom or shopping mall. We weren’t under constant surveillance and locking our doors at night. We were more concerned about going to the moon instead of getting shot in algebra class. Yes there were faults, but in my opinion society was happier.

Local residents in Massachusetts posing in front of their cars after a picnic in October, 1970.

Overall Americans in particularly gave more people the benefit of the doubt and were more innocent or gullible. This included celebrities too. It was once common to see celebrities without body guards walking through public city sidewalks and eating beside you in a restaurant. Then we all know what happened to John Lennon after he signed an autograph for a lucky fan.

So people are angry. The white man is angry that the world is changing around him and that there is nothing he can do about it. The white man is losing stability and security in the world. The New Yorker wrote a good piece on this. The COVID19 pandemic has been both a blessing and a curse in many ways. For the first time in many years for families across America, we have had to spend more time with our siblings and cousins and spouses than we ever wanted to. We were not prepared for it, but it made us realize how much society has changed over the past century. When you have to stare at your own creation in the face and say, this is my responsibility. We are in this struggle together as a team, and that is a tough pill to swallow. My only fear is that we are only going to become even more closed off after the storm.

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Say what you want about the past. There was racism, slavery, xenophobia, and blatant sexism. The sins of our past however do not excuse us from the sins in our present day, and we must own up to the fact that we are giving away our identities and reason for existence when we abandon the idea of a community. We really can learn a great deal from our relatives from the past. We don’t have to face the tide alone, and we don’t have to be a martyr. It’s not just about a responsibility, it’s about being honest with who you are as a person. What your role in society is and why you should show respect.

We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say, ‘It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem. ‘ Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.” — Fred Rodgers

Crowd shot of Black Lives Matter vigil for George Floyd in Chelmsford, MA on June 5th, 2020.

The protests we have witnessed on the streets in the past month over the murder of George Floyd is a great shift in recognizing we have a problem. We’re beginning to ask ourselves again, what is going on in our community? Why do we have no family, and why do we have no institution we can trust? These are all questions we should be asking ourselves, and we should be making our opinions be known so we can affect the change we want to see. This problem we face is multi-racial and multi-cultural.

Now is the time to take this momentum and energy we feel to meet up with new groups of people that share the same aspirations. Say hello to your neighbors even if you will be wearing a face mask. Hold the door open for a stranger, and if you see someone struggling lend a helping hand. It’s the small things we can do in every day life that make such a huge difference. It not only uplifts the people around you, it uplifts yourself and brings you confirmation. We must reconfirm ourselves with our neighborhoods. America desperately needs to reestablish the family and economic structure that promoted it. If we do nothing we will only continue to isolate.

What are your thoughts on life extenionists, and people who try to live to 120? I’ve thought about it long and hard over the past week, asking myself if I want to try an extend my life. I thought about it and the answer back to myself was an unequivocal no. I’m religious myself but honestly, I would rather have more life in the year than years in the life. I live every day like it could be my last and take nothing for granted. When the lord tells me it’s time to go I’m not going to fight it. I believe dying is a beautiful cycle, because the very reason humans take risks in life is because they know they are going to do anyways. If a person had the ability to live on forever, they would not want to risk anything. The only reason I get out of bed in the morning is because I view every day a gift from the lord above that would be foolish for me to waste.

My goal in life is to not live to be old age and alone, or to be psychically successful. I want to be spiritually encompassing and make an impact on people around me. We have that power and it would be so foolish and wasteful not to use it for good. I can say that too many have forgotten the true meaning of living a life. There are so many opportunities waiting outside of your home for you to find that have been hiding in plain sight all along. A songwriter named Dion DiMucci once said, there might be oil wells in your own backyard. However you will never know unless you take chances and risks. Never believe you are not making an impact. You have been given the gift of life. Cherish the time you have and push yourself to greatness. Don’t be greedy. Make your mark on history. This is your chance to shine and you’ve been given this gift from the lord above to make an impact. Embrace living and dying as a responsibility of the human race.

Admitting what we have become won’t be easy, but the first step to fixing a problem is admitting you have one in the first place. That is why I have great hope for the future of the American dream, because the spirit of family is stronger inside of us than the demons of lust and greed, then the anxieties of fear and seperation. It’s now the job of the next generation of Americans to overcome this struggle. If we succeed we can truly make this country a better place for generations to come. Let’s bring the family back.

Independent writer outside of Boston.

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