The single family household is the worst idea ever

It is my opinion that, in the history of the worst ideas ever conceived, the idea of the single family household is among the worst of the worst. If we take a survey of the things done wrong in the 20th century, I think many people will be amazed at how many of them are tied to the ridiculous ideal of the single family household.

Detachment from extended family and community

The extended family died the day Americans decided they needed to have their own place, and with the family went the communities those families supported. There was an era when the grandkids could walk to grandma’s house or, at worse, take a sleigh ride over the river and through the woods. Cousins, nieces, and nephews could walk to school together. Brothers and sisters could watch each other’s kids when someone was busy. Sunday dinners with the family were things everyone looked forward to.

No longer.

Instead, we now live dozens, hundreds, or thousands of miles away. For all practical purposes, we’re cut off from our own people, adrift in a sea of strangers, trying to find solace for our violated souls in a never-ending indulgence in the anesthesia of technology, media, and excess.

Our society is dying because of it.

Immense cost and duplication of effort.

When people lived in mutually supporting families and communities, everything they did cost less. Families and communities shared meals, appliances, tools, work, happiness, and sadness in a way that made everything better for everyone.

Now, everyone, sometimes down to the individual, has to have their own version of every single thing that defines modern life. We’ve spent the wealth of the wealthiest nation that has ever existed accumulating a mind-boggling assortment of stuff that serves no other purpose but to reinforce that we live alone.

Consider the cost of your own household. How much more would you have if you could share something as simple as a ride to work? What if you could share your meals beyond just yourself and your immediate family? What if your home was your work because your worked for yourself or your family business?

If you look at the United States at the turn of the last century, before the urban boom and before the income tax used to support it, ours was a wealthy nation. That wealth was slow and hard-earned, but it was a growth both sustainable and able to be passed on for generations.

What do you have now that you plan to give to your kids besides debt?

Insane consumption of resources.

Do you ever wonder where all the wild spaces went? More than likely, you’re living where one used to be. The suburbanization of the United States has meant its denuding as well. We cut down forests and pave over farms to build new subdivisions as if our forests and farms will go on forever.

Never mind the fact that we’ve consumed the world’s resources in oil paving our roads, putting tires on our cars, keeping those cars in oil, and burning gas just so we can live dozens of miles from where we work.

And because we live such a frenetic life, we eat everything out of boxes and cans. Do you say you don’t waste? Look at the trash cans you put out every week or couple of weeks, then follow them to the dump being built as a monument to your waste.

We have launched ourselves into the age of scarcity because we all think the American dream is to live in cookie cutter houses in cookie cutter subdivisions in cookie cutter towns-for-the-sake-of-local-taxes-for-services in a cookie cutter country that is as disposable as the boxes and cans we eat out of.

What will we have gained for all of this? I do not think our descendants will remember this era with much kindness. The irony is that they will share that bitterness about the past they could not control over family dinners in close-knit communities brought together by the excess and scarcity we caused.


20 thoughts on “The single family household is the worst idea ever

  1. You make it sound like we chose this life.

    You’re right, the better life you describe would be better than my life as it is. If I had a choice, I’d choose family and community over flat-screen TVs and frozen dinners in a heartbeat. But I had no choice. No one I know had such a choice.

    I wasn’t offered a choice between living a happy life supported by a loving family and a caring community or a lifetime of debt and imprisonment in a cubicle. If I had been, I certainly wouldn’t have chosen the latter option.

    I resent the implication that I willingly decided to be born into a non-community with no family support.

    If you do have such a life as you describe, full of family and community support, are you seriously chastising those of us who aren’t as fortunate? Blaming us for problems you don’t have to experience? You are like a rich person looking down on the poor for mistakenly deciding not to have any money.

  2. We all choose, Clay. At some point we are all responsible for what we do. We can choose to seek out better ways, and the option of making changes is always open to us.

    And no, I’m not chastening anyone so much as I am casting a light on the very “it’s not my fault because this was done to me” thinking that perpetuates the fact that these things are true. Change cannot happen so long as people are justifying what’s wrong.

    As it turns out, I do not have such a life. I am in the process of making it. I chose to leave the life of big screen TVs, crushing debt, soul destroying cubicles, and suburban isolation for something better. What I have now is far from perfect, but the point is that I made the change and will continue to make it.

    You should ask yourself why it is that you are so willing to just accept what you clearly believe are bad circumstances on the weak argument that it is not your fault. Perhaps even it wasn’t, but that doesn’t absolve you of doing something about it.

  3. Also, because I’m thinking about it, why should your resentment be relevant to my point? I’m not writing these things because I think they’re easy or going to make people feel good. I’m writing them because I believe they are true. Truth is rarely nice.

    Of course, you are free to disagree, and I hope that you present a case for why my thesis is wrong. A significant part of the point of philosophy is the opportunity for debate. Your resentment implies that I should change what I think because it made you feel bad, which offers no chance for the development of anything.

  4. Wow hard hitting.When I was born in the 50’s we lived 7 families in a mutil story house with my fathers 5 siblings and their families.We shared meals clothes and when one family was hurting the others picked up for them.

    • Anthony, I believe the state of affairs you describe will inevitably become the norm again as resource scarcity begins to take hold. People will have to look out for each other or they will not survive.

  5. Hi there dlhitzeman,
    I am an Englishman living in Norway and what you say resonates over here as well, it is not only an American phenomenon. I was shocked recently to hear that Italians were “going back” to eating home made food like their mother’s made because of the financial squeeze. It had never occurred to me that they had stopped, but at least Italian cuisine is saved for a bit longer!
    I agree this is not easy and also that it is our responsibility to do something about it. Unfortunately, it is not “just” a matter of making a choice, the machine that is industry with the whip of the media bearing down on us poor mules pulling it along will not take kindly to us sharing our property when we could be buying one each (and we wouldn’t need an iPhone each). This is precisely why the independent life is so heavily promoted. The hell of isolation you so well describe is precisely the situation the manufacturers and retailers wish to maintain.
    I am sure a lot of intelligent, strong people will, as you say, return to sanity, but for many the message and the temptations will be too strong.
    I may be wrong, but I fear I cannot remember a single occasion where a majority of people have turned their backs on the seduction of consumption and voluntarily returned to a simpler life, just because the knew it to be right.

  6. Hi Mark, thank you for your comment. I tend to agree with your assessment that it is very hard for people to return to an older way of life when the siren song of consumption has lured us away, yet I still hold out hope that at least some of us can defy the odds and find a better way.

    To me, the critical reality is that modern economics may dictate we have no choice. As global debt climbs and resource scarcity becomes a reality, people may have to return to more sharing in order to be able to live. I know that’s a harsh assessment, but a big part of the reason I post these thoughts is because I hope people start thinking about these things before it’s a disaster.

  7. I came from a town that had a McDonalds, a Wal-Mart and a Rival crockpot plant–oh wait, Rival went out of business. Oh! There’s a Schrieber cheese plant. Moved to the city to get a job. Had to. Sucks, my whole family lives in that town and either travels 70 miles to the nearest city or works as an auto mechanic to fix the cars to travel to said city. We got farmland down there that could use plowing, though, if you wanna stop by. The tractors broke, though.


    • Yaji, your circumstances are exactly the kind of thing my post seeks to address. To me, there is always more than one solution to the problem, especially if people are willing to work together to solve it. Simple arrangements like sharing living space or sharing meals can have huge and enduring impacts on people’s well-beings. It’s that we never think of such solutions that becomes the problem.

  8. I think you’re simply perpetuating unwarranted fears. In all honesty, you could attribute a lot of good things to the way that we do things now. Just because there are a few benefits that could be gained from moving to an antiquated way of living doesn’t mean that it would be somehow more beneficial than the way that we live today. Take your statement about cars. What would you rather we do, simply walk 20 miles to and from our workplace, school, or even to a family member’s house? Even on a bike or some other alternative mode of transportation, that would take an exorbitant amount of time compared to what we’re able to do in a car. I think that what our current society enables us to do creates a net benefit over what the old antiquated way of living that you speak of has to offer.

    Living far away from family makes seeing family feel much more important. The way we live now is the only rational way to support our, as you would call it, frenetic lifestyle. I’m not going to claim that I don’t see the good in your idea, it does seem nice to see family more often, to waste less resources, and to simply live a cleaner, slower paced life.

    It’s naive to think we could reasonably achieve the type of world you seem to want. Our circumstances wouldn’t allow it.

    You say we are able to choose our way of living, but I say only to an extent. I can choose what I want, but there are external forces at work that are entirely beyond my control. The advancement of the human race will not halt because I believe we should slow down and use less resources. The school systems in America will not miraculously improve simply because I believe they do not accomplish what I believe they are meant to. To put it simply, I believe your entire ideology is based mostly on ignorance and naivety. Whether you take offense to that is up to you, but that’s how I see this article. It’s an unachievable lifestyle that appears nice in theory, but would never work properly in practice.

    • Baffled, I take no offense simply because the whole idea behind considering philosophy is to encourage healthy debate.

      The fact is that my view is based on neither naivety nor ignorance. I’m actually actively living the life I suggest here. As a result, my life costs less than yours, I’m guessing, yet I live as well as anyone else manages in this modern society of ours. The fact is I do walk more and am healthier for it. The fact is that my lifestyle is less frenetic, and I need less medication for it. The fact is my life is more focused, and I am the better for it.

      What you claim is a return to an antiquated way of living is what I see is claiming a better state of living. The fact is that so much of the modern, frenetic life you say can’t exist without single-family dwellings, hours spent commuting on superhighways, and traveling thousands of miles a year to accomplish anything of meaning only exists because of single-family dwellings, hours spent communing on superhighways, and traveling thousands of miles a year to accomplish anything of meaning. That is a loop I chose to escape and did escape and am now much better off for it.

      In fact I did choose. And so have millions of other people around the world. Every person can choose, but they have to want to.

      So, what you see as naivety and ignorance is actually a matter of choice. I’ve chosen to do something different than you have, and it turns out it works just fine in practice.

  9. Fascinating. I know much of my family still lives in your ideal community-style housing situation and they DO benefit greatly from it. The only thing I want to add is that it was necessary for some of us to move to large cities dozens of miles away in order to attend college. I contend that some people are enabled to reach their loftiest goals by these means alone, and chances are there are no universities near just any given town in a country as large as the United States. Perhaps it was the sudden drive to put a degree in everyone’s hands that is at least a large part responsible for the shift in lifestyle. I know that there are serious drawbacks to living a loner lifestyle (the ones you listed are irrefutable), but look at how much more we’ve accomplished because of it. Until education is accessible everywhere in the same quality that is made available at a university, our exploding population will seek knowledge away from families and community. Perhaps for the greater good.

    • Rob, you make a good point about education, yet I can’t help but notice the irony that even at college, students tend to live together and share resources. The trend toward the loner lifestyle seems to start only after one graduates.

      Perhaps a better way to frame this idea is to expand it beyond just family. There is nothing that says that the situation I describe has to be limited to family, though it is possibly easier with family than with other people.

      What’s ironic about all of this to me personally is that I am a rampant libertarian on most things, yet my suggestions here end up being powerfully socialistic. That’s probably because socialism is a very successful ideology when applied at the right level, I suppose.

  10. Communities like that are genetically bad. They are generally closed off from outsiders and after so many generations there begins to be a lot of inbreeding. You and your second cousin. Your sister and your nephew twice removed. Inbreeding leads to a lot of detrimental genetics, such as mental retardation. New blood is important for the continuation of a family.

    • Key, I agree with you on that point, and I would never suggest that any community should be closed. For that matter, and in my experience, not a small number of the ones who follow this idea are not closed at all.

      There are many ways to solve this sort of problem and to achieve the same effect.

      • For example, a growing trend in several parts of the country are communal living arrangements built around common employment or education. People move into villa style homes designed to accommodate dozens of family but that share kitchens and laundry facilities and usually have a common garden or recreation space in the center. Even in circumstances where these arrangements are rental undertakings, rent pays for shared meals and chores. In the situations organized around employment or education, people then often share rides to work, errands, and all sorts of other things. To me, that’s just a better way.

  11. I grew up in the US in a small family (the extended family lived on the other side of the country. I have never been as close to my family as many are, although we all love each other deeply. I lived 7years in Europe and now in Russia. This journey is all about cultural differences and curiosity. i am an explorer by nature.
    I started the process of simplifying my life back before i moved away from the US. My husband and i decided to sell one of our two cars. It was such a hard process to let go. It was like a strange addiction. And even though we didn’t miss the second car but one time a year, we guessed we would miss it a couple times a month. We only made the step to sell when we agreed to rent as needed. We never did rent the car and were only minorly inconvenienced by the one time we “needed” it because we couldn’t give a ride to one person.
    Anyway, never got a car while in Europe and don’t have one in Russia. Here it is common to have multi-generational households. Often the grandparents take care of the children and the middle aged make the money to support the family. Most often it is cited as because the pension is too low to be liveable. Most say that they prefer independence.
    I sometimes wish i was more a part of a community. Often, actually. But i can’t help but imagine that i would go crazy having to live with people other than a husband. How does this work with people who are independent and need a bit of privacy? I see people holding their deep make-out sessions in public here because it’s more private to be anonymous then to be home. Thoughts?

  12. Ps- point of clarification, I was divorced just after i moved to Europe. Felt like i was bleeding money when i became single. Just like you said, we consume so much more of everything when alone (as an extreme example of single family living). But since i so enjoyed simplifying (sans auto), i just kept going… Turned off the tv, rode my bike everywhere, cooked more, sold off a lot of stuff… All steps felt great. Seriously freeing, and not in a hippy way. Just in a happy way. But all of those steps aside, i sure wish i had a stronger community. And moving home won’t solve that.

    • Mags, as I think I commented previously, it’s not always about living with family. Instead, it’s about living in such a way that reduces the amount of resources we expend maintaining single family households. My original post focused on a multi-generational solution, but that doesn’t have to be the only way.

      For example, people all over Europe have adopted various communal living arrangements that have nothing to do with families. They often share cars, houses, even bicycles, much to the benefit of everyone involved.

      What I have discovered is that independence does not have to mean isolation. I maintain a great degree of independence, even from my own spouse, in the communal environment I have adopted. It can be done. We just have to figure out how to do it.

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