The Nuclear Family Goes Boom!

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When cartoon-show creators William Hanna and Joseph Barbera strained their imaginations (ever so slightly) to picture the family of the future, it was a pretty simple exercise. Take your basic nuclear family: the modern, shop-happy housewife, the corporate-drone dad, two rambunctious kids and a dog; house them in a spacy-looking split-level; power their car with atomic energy; equip their home with a robot maid; and, whammo, you had it -- a space-age Cleaver family named The Jetsons.

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In an age of working mothers, single parents and gay matrimony, George Jetson and his clan already seem quaint even to the baby boomers who grew up with them. The very term nuclear family gives off a musty smell. The family of the 21st century may have a robot maid, but the chances are good that it will also be interracial or bisexual, divided by divorce, multiplied by remarriage, expanded by new birth technologies -- or perhaps all of the above. Single parents and working moms will become increasingly the norm, as will out-of- wedlock babies, though there will surely be a more modern term for them. "The concept of the illegitimate child will vanish because the concept of the patriarchal nuclear family will vanish," says Leslie Wolfe, executive director of the Center for Women Policy Studies.

The clock cannot be turned back, despite the current political exploitation of old-fashioned family values. "The isolated nuclear family of the 1950s was a small blip on the radar," says Wolfe. "We've been looking at it as normal, but in fact it was a fascinating anomaly." While a strict reinforcement of traditional family roles is already under way in parts of the Muslim world and a backlash against feminism has occurred in the West, such counterrevolutions are likely to fail. "The fact of change is the one constant throughout the history of the family," says Maris Vinovskis, a professor at the University of Michigan. "The family is the most flexible, adaptive institution. It is constantly evolving."

The rise of divorce in the late 20th century will be a primary influence on the family in the century to come. Divorce rates have recently stabilized, but they have done so at such a high level -- 50% of marriages will end in court -- that splitting up will be considered a natural thing. One reason the rate of divorce will remain high is that people will live longer. At the last turn of the century, at least one partner in a couple usually died before age 50, so husbands and wives were preoccupied with child rearing for nearly the entire length of their union. Now and in the future, "you may find yourself empty nesting at age 45, with 40 years of life to go," observes Ken Dychtwald, a San Francisco consultant specializing in the impact of longevity. As a result, he says, "it will become more normal to have several marriages. Divorce will not be seen as a failure but as a normal occurrence at various stages of life." Marriage contracts might be revised to include sunset clauses that would enable aging couples to escape an until-death-do-us-part commitment.

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