How to Create the Future We Want for the Family

By Nicole Sussner Rodgers and Ben Hamamoto

As the old adage goes, family is the backbone of society. But who is “family”? The phrase is meant to call to mind a specific image, one so deeply a part of the American ethos it requires no explanation. And yet, against the backdrop of crumbling care infrastructure, amplified health inequities, and unparalleled economic inequality, the global pandemic may be what has finally exposed the farce of the self-sufficient nuclear family unit.

Perhaps Vice-Presidential nominee Kamala Harris said it best in her recent speech at the Democratic National Convention when talking about her own family: Family is her husband, who she married at age 50; her children (importantly, not “step-children” despite that fact that she is not their biological mother); her best friend, her nieces, her godchildren; her second mother who helped raise her; and her Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority sisters. This too, is family, or at least a more honest accounting of what “family” has the potential to be if we define it as the network of people we love, depend on, and support.

Whether help is paid or the result of mutual obligation, no one does it alone. Just ask anyone currently scrambling to create a patchwork of care for their children or aging parents at a moment when bringing in outside caregiving requires a serious risk assessment.

Difficult roads can lead to beautiful destinations, though, and the current moment is poised for two long overdue shifts: a recognition of what families actually look like today in the United States and ensuring economic stability for every one of them. We could be on the verge of a transformation of the social contract as a whole, in which the entire notion of family is radically rethought and redefined. But we could also be at the beginning of a very different kind of metamorphosis, marked by regression and retreat.

The direction it takes depends on us.

Today, Family Story, which works to advance equity for all types of families, and Institute for the Future, the world’s leading futures organization, released a joint report entitled Families In Flux: Imagining the Next Generation of the American Family, which asks: What might we expect the future of family to look like? Not just next year, but in 2040?

To explore this question, we used an adaptation of a tool for generating alternative future scenarios. Each one uses changes already underway today, along with discrete “signals,” small or local innovations that have the potential to grow, and extrapolates to create distinct, contrasting visions of the future of the family. In reality, of course, the scenarios are not mutually exclusive, and the future may contain elements of several. But of the four possible scenarios we laid out in the report, there are two that seem most likely to materialize. They represent a choice between compromises intended to stabilize society (a scenario we call “Intervention”) and one that represents a more just and liberated future for families (a scenario we call “Revolution”). Here’s what those futures could look like.

The “Intervention” scenario is the easier to imagine of the two, because it depends largely on a growing consensus that the state needs to do more to create new social safety net programs and wealth distribution initiatives. This might, for example, include stipend programs to make single-income family homes viable and to provide support to people caring for children or elders at home. Framed as “helping families” this future aligns with an existing aspiration for many Americans: the ability to support a nuclear family household with a single breadwinner.

But it could also amplify pre-existing inequalities. For instance, women disproportionately sacrifice work to prioritize family obligations. Today, with many schools closed and paid caregivers often unavailable or prohibitively expensive, the value of having a family member at home who is not formally employed has only become clearer. But if two-parent, single-income families became the norm, as they were briefly in the 50s and 60s, women would likely end up comprising more than half of all stay-at-home parents, unless there were a substantial effort to prevent it. This could erase decades of feminist gains.

Further, while a new consensus that capitalism needs to be curtailed is emerging, there could be vehement disagreement about why. The left may see capitalism as inherently cruel and exploitative. But as political parties and factions realign, new conservatives might oppose it only to the extent that it “undermines traditional families.” As a result, programs implemented at the national level might only offer protections to people who can conform to a narrow definition of a “traditional family.” Unmarried couples, single-parents, poly relationships, and non-biological kinship connections that aren’t formalized legally would likely be seen as illegitimate, and many families would remain extremely vulnerable.

If these interventions follow historical precedent, redistributive policies might also be expected to exclude people of color, and Black people in particular, either explicitly or by using identity proxies. For example, plenty has been written about drug policy in the United States and the differences in sentencing for crack possession compared with cocaine possession, or the way that the crack epidemic was met with the war on drugs and mass incarceration, while the opioid epidemic has been treated as a public health emergency. Similarly, increasing numbers of white “single mothers by choice” may be treated by media as an empowering “trend” while single-mother-headed Black families are viewed as a cultural scourge and targeted by paternalistic policies like marriage promotion.

Even if all of these issues were addressed, however, what we end up with in a future “intervention” scenario is a paradigm in which the insular nuclear family has primacy as a social unit, which has dangerous limitations. By bolstering the safety net for some, this scenario may initially look like progress, but in fact, socially it quickly transforms into something distinctly regressive.

The more transformational scenario — which we argue may rise to meet this unprecedented moment — we call “Revolution.”

In this future, the urgent need to address multiple simultaneous crises — climate disasters, social upheaval, economic collapse, and, yes, pandemics — provoke people to question existing social contracts. In particular, the dearth of credible explanations for current problems, let alone viable solutions from traditional sources of political and social authority, send people searching. Many are able to find hope and possibility in the communities exhibiting the most resilience, and the counter-cultural movements that support them.

Black families have always been defined in more expansive terms and in general, people of color, indigenous people, and immigrants have long relied on extended kinship networks for resilience. In this future, the longstanding benefits of this kind of conception of family become hard to ignore. Similarly, people living in various forms of “intentional community” also provide a strong model.

A number of ascendant movements share, among other things, a goal of decentering the nuclear family in this scenario. The climate justice movement, which has within it an anti-natalist faction, might for example, productively redirect that critique into opposing large suburban single-family homes and the lifestyle that accompanies them. The racial justice movement eschews defining success in terms of “traditional family,” instead calling for the recognition, resources, and support necessary to formalize the kinds of family structures many people of color already live in (Black Lives Matter, for example, believes in disrupting the “Western-prescribed nuclear family structure” in favor of a village-model of extended family and collective care).

The economic justice movement seeks to totally rethink how we define value by placing the concept of family at its center. The way we spend our time, with the number of hours we work in a week second only to the number of hours we sleep, belies what Americans articulate as their true priorities, which include family, community, and social issues. In this future, the nuclear family is revealed as too isolated and atomized. Extended and non-biological family come to be rightly understood as both more resilient in the face of economic turbulence and supply chain disruption, but also as more fulfilling and meaningful.

Unfortunately, the only way we arrive here is that the current system becomes intolerable for enough people that they become willing to go through the painful process of trying something radically different.

When we completed the first draft of our new report, the crises that would precipitate this scenario seemed, if not unlikely, at least a bit distant. That is no longer the case. The pandemic alone has made the need for household resilience much more salient, and we are likely not even through the worst of its impacts. Unemployment claims have reached record highs and a huge spike in homelessness is projected, opening the possibility of radically rethinking the right to housing and even basic concepts of land-ownership. Further, the fact that essential workers are often the lowest paid is spurring reconsideration of how we assess value.

Heartening, though, is the momentum of movements that bring about a “Revolution”-like scenario, and which show no sign of slowing down: The Sunrise Movement, which aims to curb climate change while transforming the whole economy, is proving a force to be reckoned with and will likely only grow as more severe and frequent climate events become the norm; ongoing protests against relentless anti-Black police violence have shown how many people are unwilling to accept the current policing and justice system and the racial caste system it upholds; and the already robust opposition to free market capitalism could spread if the government continues to fail to help victims of our current economic crisis by falling back on a tired and debunked “bootstrapmentality. Perhaps most importantly, these movements are likely to become even more interconnected, as intersectional analysis of the problems we face is used to build, not divide, coalitions.

It is helpful to remember how much has already changed regarding family life in our recent history. Even the idea of “love-based” marriage — a sexually exclusive, romantic union between one man and one woman — is a relatively recent historical development. Love and marriage, in fact, were long regarded as incompatible (love was fragile, while marriage was a serious matter). Parenting has also transformed dramatically, becoming far more time-consuming and expensive in recent decades. Far from precious “gifts” in agricultural times, one of the most important roles children played was to provide free labor to the family. And, just a few decades ago, women were considered spinsters or “old maids” if they were not married by their mid-20s. These are just a few examples of how much change is possible, often in a relatively short period of time.

Much will be determined in the next few months, especially given the coming hyper-charged election. But where we land in 2040 will not hinge exclusively on November’s election results. Rather, it will be determined more by the aggregate success of social movements in sustaining pressure for cultural and economic change.

There is the possibility of a much better future for families on the horizon, but getting there will require a clear-eyed appraisal of what the term “family” should encompass and how we can support those that already exhibit the kind of resilience and adaptability the new “normal” will likely require.

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Nicole S. Rodgers is the executive director of Family Story, an organization that works to advance equity for all types of families. Follow her on Twitter at @nsrodgers and @FamilyStoryProj

Ben Hamamoto is research director at Institute for the Future, the world’s leading futures organization.