Coined in the 1920s, the term ‘nuclear family’ refers to a compact family unit consisting of two adults and their children. An expansion of this core with non-immediate family members is designated the ‘extended family’.
Consisting of multiple generations of parents, children and other relatives, the extended family has often been associated with early 20th-century, rural communities where nuclear families would find it hard to be self-sufficient. The proliferation of nuclear families in later decades, in turn, was explained as a consequence of growing industries and increased urbanisation: professionals, who moved away from villages, would have found it hard to establish a new network of support and solidarity in the city.
Furthermore, working in an urban environment required a focus on economic activities and made it more important for individuals to stand out from the anonymous crowd. As these criteria seemed to be a better fit with the nuclear family model than with that of the extended family, until recently sociologists and anthropologists considered it to be the logically dominant form of family life in the 20th century.
Yet this rationale has been questioned by scholars who discovered that the nuclear family had been common in Europe long before the industrial revolution. Furthermore, they demonstrated that the average size of family units has not substantially changed in past centuries. Couples setting up an independent household after marriage is a pattern that can be connected with Western Europe in general, not just with urban environments and industrial times.
Also the theory that extended families were a thing of the past and a phenomenon mostly confined to agricultural communities is intensely debated.
Economic strains, shifts in industry causing job loss, as well as rising house prices and divorce rates have been seen to not only boost the number of single-parent families but also to delay the point at which young professionals are able to afford a dwelling of their own.
As a result, multi-generational living has been making a comeback since the 1980s. A contributing factor is the continuous rise of life expectancy, allowing more opportunities for grandparents, parents and children to spend part of their lives together.
Beyond the traditional concepts of nuclear and extended families, the previous century has seen an unprecedented pluralism of family forms, from single-parent households to blended families and cohabitating friends. Having emerged as ‘alternative families’, households diverging from early- and mid-century norms have continuously advocated for equal rights, fueled by the feminist and LGBTQ+ movements.