What Destroyed the Extended Family?

A Common Sense Homesteading reader discussion on the state of the extended family - what caused its breakup, and whether it's time for it to return.

In last week’s newsletter, I asked readers what they felt destroyed the extended family. This has been on my mind lately as we are getting older and our boys reach adulthood and prepare to leave the nest – or not – and another family member considers joining us in our home. There are so many projects I’d love to tackle here and so much potential productivity that we could easily make room for everyone – stacking functions, permaculture style. I think it’s the right choice for us to rebuild and grow extended family connections, but it feels out of place in today’s society (like much of what we do in homesteading).

The primary messages that society seems to send are either a) If you stay with your parents, you’re a loser and are mooching off of them while living in the basement forever, or b) To be “successful”, you must leave home and get an expensive college degree (with lots of debt) and a white collar 9-5 job. Meanwhile, companies are desperate for skilled workers in the trades, with many positions remaining unfilled. (Check out MikeRoweWORKS for scholarship info for skilled trades.)

The local food movement is growing, but it’s harder than heck for small farmers to stay afloat by simply producing fruits and veggies for direct sale. Many go under, or hold a second job off the farm to pay the bills. Only a rare few like Joel Salatin or Jean-Martin Fortier turn small scale farming into a successful business. (Although the numbers are growing!)

With the ongoing threat of ongoing economic instability, it makes me wonder if the time has finally come for the true rebirth of small scale agriculture and the extended family. There seems to be an growing longing for that sense of connection – even in the most bizarre and unexpected places, like bad zombie movies.

What Destroyed the Extended Family?

Here’s the original question posed in the newsletter:

When did the family unit get completely ripped apart? Historically, the extended family unit was very functional. Grandparents lived with the family, and cared for and taught the young, while the more able bodied did the heavy labor of the farm or business. Generations commonly mixed.

At some point, the grandparents were booted out of the home, the kids were all shunted off to school, and both ends of the age spectrum were largely isolated mainstream society. Kids now have kid activities, older folks have old folk activities, and the rest of life is for “everyone else”.

Where did we lose our cohesion as a society? I know there are many factors involved. I’d be interested in hearing your take on it.

And here’s what our readers had to say:

A shift post WWII…

From Melanie – It seems to me that the family unit became “disengaged” from each other beginning after WWII. Women began working out of the home. People working for companies that required their employees to transfer to multiple locations in the country (or internationally) throughout their careers. People became geographically separated and more used to seeing their families only on holidays. In addition, it was more and more difficult for family farms to stay in business so fewer and fewer families were working together on a daily basis. “Old folks homes” became the norm as well when families were longer vested in each other’s well being. It’s very sad.


Another perspective – I think it started with WWII when women had to take up the slack when so many men went off to war. After that society began to be bombarded with “convenience”. Women didn’t “go back to just being housewives” because now they were comfortable with being in the work place. That led to more women wanting to find something to do with the children – schools and school activities instead of the family and family activities. This led to the government taking a stronger and ever growing hold on out children. Senior citizen homes began cropping up eventually as a really nice place for your parents to spend time with others their ages in a group setting and as the health of the grandparent began to deteriorate with the new convenience foods and lifestyles it morphed into an elder care system. More and more women sought careers instead of what television touted as the drudgery of housework, dishpan hands, etc. Hollywood influenced society into adopting a lifestyle that led to the separation of the family and everyone bought into it hook, line and sinker. Anyone who didn’t adopt it was frowned on and called old fashioned. It steamrolled on all fronts until we have found ourselves where we are now and asking how did this happen. It was so insidious and slow that no one noticed. Kind of like what is happening to the protections of the constitution under the last few presidents. At least it has not been so deep of a dark hole that we cannot still find the old paths our grandparents trod.


From Sue – I had asked that question of my husband about 12 yrs ago. He said that it all started WWII. When the men went to war, the women went into the workplace, factories and offices, etc and took over the jobs that the men left behind when they went into military service. When the men came back, women were reluctant, resentful to go back into the home environment like they had been. They wanted a career, so it didn’t leave time to take care of a multi-generational home. The responsibility of feeling obligated to stay at home and take care of your grandparents, parents and your own family just wasn’t there like it had been.

That got me to do some reading about the women, their environment and mood back then. It totally made sense to me. This is just my take on it, anyway. Will be curious to what other readers say.


From Toni –

I just want to respond to your questions about the breakdown of the family as a unit. By the way I am 70 years old and this is my perspective. I think that the breakdown began during World War 2. Women went to work outside of the home to support the US economy and the war effort. The young men who went to war returned as changed men. far more worldly than “farm boys”. In addition shortly after WW2 large farming corporations began to take over our agricultural basis putting the small farmer out of business. This composite scenario caused many families to leave the rural family supported agricultural situation to move to larger cities and towns to find work.

Eventually the families moved to the suburbs as cars became more integral to the family. This caused more and more fractures in the extended family situation. For a while, like when I was a child the suburban neighbors became the extended family. This, sadly, went by the wayside as the economy required that both parents work outside of the home and children be cared for outside of the home. School days were elongated and the traditional agricultural school release days were eliminated. This caused families to spend more time away from each other.

It is not that the grandparents were booted out as much as they were left behind, on the farm, so to say. As technology is used more and more by the youth of the families,they are becoming less and less social and interactive. This adds to the breakdown of the integrated family unit. Technology also dissuades much of our youth from participating in outdoor activities (playing outside). This also annihilates personal social interaction. In my opinion, kids don’t do as much “kid things” as they used to. I am not sure where this will lead.


From Gaydean – I believe it started with Progressivism. When factories started popping up in the east, the railroad expanded greatly and it was easy for the young boys of the family to leave home to work. They had heard all the stories of the large steel mills, automobile factories and more in school. Once they moved off the farm the women had to take up the slack. This left no one to watch/teach the little ones. From there it snowballed downward. This is what actually happened in my mom’s family, except they lived in Montana, WWll broke out, all the boys, except the oldest one, went into the service. The older girls got married, my mom went to work at the Stockton, CA shipyards. This left only the younger siblings, 2, at home. My grandparents were wheat farmers, had 12 children, my great grandmother live with them as did various nieces, friends, etc. From that point on none of the boys came back to Montana after the war. Most settled in CA. Later 2 went back . Thus this very large and wonderful family was divided by miles, counties & states. Reunions then became the way back home.


From Alice – I think after World War II the wheels started to come off the train. First, [some] women who had worked outside the home liked it. Unfortunately, they left an opening for those forces who would destroy the family to say that ALL women should work—or feel second class.

To me, raising children and keeping a home is one of the highest callings there is. One must be nursemaid, cook, cleaning lady, and budget keeper;
and that is comparable to running a business, if you do it right.

Also, the idea that having Gram and Gramps living with the family was somehow low class and beneath the newly prosperous. Children were often kept by nannies and sent off to private schools in the homes of the “gentry”. Well, why wouldn’t we want that now that we can afford it?
I believe that the best that was has been relegated to the garbage heap because we were all sold the proverbial “bill of goods”. In searching for a better life, we destroyed what was good and true In the family unit to trade it for the affluent lifestyle. No one ever thought about the troubles that
attended those Gentle Folk long before it came to the rest of us.


From Linda – My thoughts? The affordability of the automobile, the Dustbowl, WWII when womenI entered the work place & stayed. I think the Dustbowl/Depression probably really influenced as younger families left the homeplace to seek work & a “better life”. My own parents went to California because the streets were paved with gold. The old folks stayed behind because starting over at their age didn’t appeal to them. As far as children & parents having separate activities, I think that began when both parents working outside the home became the norm.

Changing technology had an impact…

From Tim – I think that as time progressed, so did the opportunities away from home and this meant the kids moving when they came of age. Farming and staying at home to take over the family business meant carrying on as your parents did, and this became simply living as one’s parents did and no better future than what they had. The electronic and technology revolution brought far greater and more diverse possibilities for the kids so off they went, only to return for a visit. Unfortunately, the farming life is no longer as attractive as it once was. Have a good day, and I think that things are turning back to the old ways and ambitions. ?

Changing roles in the family…

From Kay – This is my take on your question. I believe the family began to be ripped apart when younger generations moved away from the home place for work. As the future generations came along, adult children moved away further away, women began to work outside of the home.

In my family, my dad’s job required that we move often, as often as every year (no he was not in the military). My mother was from Louisiana and most of her family remained in the same general vicinity until my generation. I lived in over 30 houses by the time I was in my early 20’s & married. My mother was from Louisiana and most of her family remained in the same general vicinity until my generation. My husband’s family lived in south east Texas and until my husband’s generation no one lived more than about 40 miles from where the families originally settled in the mid-1850s. My husband was the first in his to go to college and move away.

We have grown sons & grandchildren – it seems to me that people are getting farther and farther away from their roots, as I’ve witnessed in our own family. Parents & grandparents are no longer respected – expanding on that, children do not seem to be taught to respect any “elders” (i.e. teachers, law enforcement, pastors, etc. – basically anyone in authority).

Parents becoming friends instead of parents…

I think the family unit disintegration topic is an interesting & multi- layered issue. I feel that as technology has advanced, industrialization, etc. I think those things began the process & as science learned more about children & their brain capacity etc. the push began to politically remain the top nation in the world.

Then as more and more farms died off, work began being harder to find so ppl had to relocate to cities. Cities breed all kinds of negative influences that ppl fall under. As this progressed we began seeing more & more absent fathers which in turn meant the Mom had to be the sole provider for her children. As THIS progressed working Mom’s began feeling guilty for being gone so much (& they certainly didnt have time to deal w/ their aging parents). So many elders ended up forgotten in nursing homes etc. bc there was no one else to care for them.

Then (I worked w/ families for nearly 20 yrs- the poor, threatened w/ foster care etc). With the advent of our computer & electronic age, I saw a shift in parents going from being parents to trying to just be their kid’s friend & buying them off in essence in assuage their guilt due to never being around for them. Kids are now raised more by daycare providers instead. And w/ parents wanting to be friends, the attitude of, “I don’t want them mad at me.” happened. This lead to no rules, limitations or hands-on teaching & learning. Electronics, the Internet, TV, video games etc began raising our kids & parents let it happen. I shudder to see what this next generation will bring once they reach adulthood & have children of their own…

Fast Food changed eating habits…

Your question about the family unit is multi-faceted . I am not a brief person, but don’t want to talk your ear off right now . =O)

The family unit really is no more . When is the last time most families sat down together for a meal ? Christmas ? Families need to share their meals more than on holidays. Fast food is one culprit ! People “go” too much . Even in the city, I grow what I can to put on my table and that of others . Everything has to be fast now . Instant . We are led to believe we can have instant gratification & to expect it . People are way out of touch with the world.

I recently went in to a local supermarket for a few items . While at the meat counter, I noticed that the butcher had put some rosemary on a few pieces of meat to make them more appealing . I asked him where he got the rosemary . From the vegetable section he said. (That means $$ were exchanged if only on paper from department to department ) I then asked him why he didn’t go out into the parking lot where the rosemary plants abound ! they are in all the strips. Rosemary for everyone ! And yet he and others go into the store and buy $3.99 plastic packages of the herb. People don’t recognize food . If it’s not in a bright colored package, and on sale ………………. well, you get the idea.

Sure there are a lot of other things I could expend on …… but to keep it very basic, we don’t even sit down together for our meals anymore . Fast food is evil ( yes, I too enjoy it sometimes ) We need to slow down and concentrate on those important to us or we lose them ………………………………..Derk

Higher rates of divorce…

Hi Laurie, in response to your question on the shattering of the family, there have been many issues wearing away at it for decades. My Grandparents raised eight children on their 80 acres but still needed to work elsewhere for extra income. The young folks had to leave home since the farm was too small to support more than one family. With the ups & downs of industry & the economy, many marriages fracture into divorce and those that survive often must relocate far from family &friends. Unless they are fortunate enough to find a welcoming Church family in their new location, they’re pretty much on their own. And let’s not forget the common attitude promoted by popular TV personalities of shunning as toxic, anyone who has an opinion different from yours who would presumptively offer advise. The maturity & experience of the elders is rarely valued, often considered out-of-date. Sometimes dire economic straits will reconnect a family, benefiting all. May God Bless America & our future, Aunt T.

Extended family still thrives in some areas…

From Piera – In Greece my best friend jokes he lives on a commune. He lives with his mom and dad on the ground floor apartment while he his wife and two young kids are on the middle floor apt.

The nanny lives up on the top floor which is semi attic style but she has a terrace.
My cousins in Italy have a similar set up. The grand parents live on the ground floor and tends the garden with veggies galore.
The kids -two in high school, live on the second floor where the kitchen is and a living room.
The parents have the top floor.
The grands have their own kitchen and yet dinners are almost always shared while weekends lunch is usually the most shared depending on who goes out to meet/eat with friends.
We kick out our kids too soon in the usa and hope college teaches them about life but it doesn’t. We do a big disservice with this odd modern set up.
What I see is in these older countries is a more realistic pace and compromise. It developes compassion and patience.
Another of my Greek friends said the usa is the teenager of the world. We love to see what they are up to, youth ..new ideas etc.
But teenagers are prudish, short sighted, egocentric as they have to learn more about themselves in society. You don’t trust teenagers with your new car and the house to themselves. … let alone world power!
For what it’s worth. ..a few thoughts.


From Laura – 1) Even in the US, certain cultures (such as East Indian and Latin American) still do often live in multi-generational homes. For example, in Houston, TX, where we used to live, whole suburbs have different architectural styles for affluent families that need “mothers-in-law” apartments and even family compounds of laterally related cousins, etc.

2) Every year, my husband and I travel to India and South America for part of Alaska’s long winter. Vertically integrated family households are very common there, even among professionals. Usually, the young adults do NOT leave home, and never live alone. They go from Mom and Dad to bride or husband… living with one or the other Mom and Dad. This is true among the educated classes. Millions of lower class members travel to the cities in search of jobs, where they live together, often in vulnerable conditions. In addition, the societies are not nearly as mobile as in the US, for jobs and education. People identify with the town they are from, which often has a different language and cuisine, even if they are “temporarily” working or schooling elsewhere. For example, every state in India has a different state language. The rural people in norther South America speak Quechua, not Spanish. In such places, there is a very strong “good old boys’ network” at home, for finding wives as well as jobs, homes, other purchasing deals through an interdependent network.

3) In conclusion, I believe that the breakdown of the American family occurred after WWII when so many soldiers returned home and housing and jobs were short in rural hamlet homes but cities were booming. With 3000 miles of the same language and Ike’s development of the interstate highways, we were an amazingly mobile society, largely for jobs, but also for education and recreational travel. Nowadays, things are shifting back, presumably because of economics. Huge swaths of the Millennials are living at home, not buying cars or homes. They are obviously not as mobile as prior generations.

A change of faith…

From Cheryl W. – Oh Laurie! I have been feeling that same way – the family is so broken apart. When did it happen? Probably as the family farms began to be replaced with commercial farms. And this country has turned away from following Christ. It is the same as what happened to the Jews. As we have turned away from God, I believe He removes his hand of protection and allows us the reap what we have sown. But I also believe His purpose is as the chastisement of a Father – to turn us back to Him.

I have been absolutely aching to have a small farm with all my family living together. I have been praying, Lord, if this is Your will, show me the way and open the doors.

My first grandchild was born last Friday. I want her future to be the best it can be.

My life is so busy – with working full time and just trying to keep my house relatively in order. I am so ready to give up my job and begin a homestead. But I need to figure out how to make a living also, since my husband has Lyme disease and Babesiosis and is on a PICC line. Insurance does not cover his IV meds, so he pays $1,000 a month out of his pocket for that and his doctor, who also is not covered by insurance. But I realize, God has SO blessed us that the meds keep him stable enough to be able to continue working. Otherwise, we would not be able to afford his care.

I am not complaining – just stating the facts. God is in control and I believe He has a purpose in all this.


I believe the family fell apart when God was left by the highway. Materialism, with. the advent of the industrial revolution became the norm and women entered the work force (which was encouraged by government (WW II helped) as more taxes paid in to their coffers). Children were trained by daycare or babysitters and who knows what they learned. And at school age, the students are now trained by government. Think common core. The ERA, encouraged by Rockefeller, also, got more women out of the house.

That also gave the government more latitude to train the children. (I have nothing against women in the work force or as professionals. This just explains the break up of the family).

Big families are replaced with abortions, or children have been conceived to bring in more welfare money, mostly by boyfriends. Sit down meals replaced by anything fast. Gays also desecrate the marriage, and family unit, and the snowball continues to roll downhill. To bring a one world global government about, is nothing more than a tower of babel. Reality hurts, thus to become self sufficient, like you are doing, is the only joy and key to future survival. Love your real neat learning and experience post. – Mike

The changing role of women…

I can only speak from my limited experience, but I think the decline of the family came from lack of putting God first, but a close second would be the college experience for women. It makes women feel like failures if they aren’t “pulling their own weight” etc. Thus, there is the lack of focus on children and their little, soon-to-be-big problems. That is not to say I am against educating women, but it comes with a price.
Strict parameters have to be maintained. Would that someone address that. Maybe you in this blog?

That’s a messy question. For those who aren’t familiar with my background, I have my bachelor’s degree in math/physics and my masters in mechanical engineering with an emphasis in renewable energy. I don’t think I like the idea of “strict parameters” being set on anyone’s education, but perhaps I’m misunderstanding the comment.

Fallout from the ’60s…

From Marilyn – I am a child of that extended family unit, at 61 my parents were from the depression as children & WWII as young adults. I knew my grandparents and some of my great grandparents & have wished for years we were still in those times. Our cohesion as a society I think ended in the 1960’s. A new awakening that I think was also a downward spiral. Riots, radical ideas, the birth control pill helped to separate the family. It was cool to join a commune & have relations out of wedlock, old people were stupid & out of touch, the growth of TV & movies changed thoughts on religion, divorce, morals & what was right or wrong.

I was too young to really understand the 60’s (also being raised in OK on a ranch I was naive). My parents were conservative & taught us as they were taught but TV & movies were a strong influence. The general feeling for me & my peers was that we couldn’t wait to be free those just a few years older had broken the mold. We were the toddlers of the “me” generation really, now it’s the “only me” generation. As a nation & a society we have lost core beliefs that were central to the founding of this country & our strength as a nation. I grieve deeply for all that is lost & will never return. I hope my children & grandchildren will be able to turn the country around, I doubt that I will see it. However I am still hopeful, trying to teach some of the old ways & there are many others doing the same. Blogs like yours are helping to wake up the younger generation to a simpler time. I hope it’s not too late.


Another perspective – When did the family get torn apart? I’d suggest a major shift came with the socialistic “War on Poverty” of the 60’s and the concomitant belief that Government is daddy, provider, and protector… when mom’s can make more money shacking up and having babies and multiple fathers need not be responsible, when sex is free and killing babies in the womb is easier than letting them live and loving them….when God and all higher authority is denied and laws become ways to controlling others and schools take the place of parents…. And the 60’s were the iceberg of change’s tip… the back and forth of control and power is part of the history of man… for the more recent times, I’d suggest starting with the Fabian Socialists and following their pathway to today…


From James –

I may be in a position to answer, in some degree, your question on family deterioration…I was born in ’47…first wave “baby Boomer”. As I remember it, the 50’s still held the values of the previous generation…family ties and such.

Then came the 60’s where it took both husband and wife to work to support the family…this ushered in “Turn Key Children”. They were kids who were pretty much on their own because both parents were working so they had to fend for themselves and had little supervision.

It was also a time of TV as prime time and meals became focused around the TV rather than the dinner table. As this generation grew up and had kids of their own, they followed what they had experienced and considered as normal behavior.

So, their children grew up with a lack of supervision and direction which was carried over into the following generations.

Then you had the “Spawn from Hell”…Dr. Spock…telling everybody that disciplining your child was cruel and child abuse. This fostered a disrespect for authority in the ensuing generations. So, today, you have kids who have no respect for family values, let their kids run wild, and with no firm foundation to guide them have become self-centered and show a distinct lack of morals, ethics and integrity because the family unit had dissolved to the point of no longer providing these. Be it from lack of ability to, lack of desire to or just plain lack of never having been exposed to them.

End result, we now have a society that has lost track and a sense of values. Values which our Grandparents considered sacred have now become profane. It is a very sad state of affairs. ?

Sharing “lost” traditions…

From Melissa B – My family unit actually includes the grandparent (my momma) and at one point included my grandmother (maternal). Right now it is my daughter, my disabled mother and myself. I work as a caregiver with my mother now as my only client and I work two online jobs as well. My grandmother lived with us until she reached stage 4 renal cancer. Then she insisted on living in the “end game” home as she calls it. She didn’t want my nine year old daughter to watch her die. I will continue to take care of my mother. She will only go into a home or facility if it is what is best for her health and she insists. I estimate another 30 years with her though.

I am not sure what happened with our society that families think it is strange or that people are “mooching” off one another if they live together. My family has strong ties to our church and our community now, and I am baffled by some people’s lack of this. I see far too many people put into nursing homes and forgotten about, when there is not a medical reason for them to be there. People are too rushed and self-centered anymore to want to care for their family members. I love the knowledge, experience and wisdom that I get from having my momma here. She has been through it with 9 siblings and 12 step siblings and many nieces and nephews. I gain so much from having her here and I miss my Grams with all of her knowledge.

My daughter and I both home can our food, we have gardens and food growing year round, we dehydrate, bake our own bread, make our own “junk” food and we sew most our own household clothing and linens. We learned all of this from my Grams. I just cannot imagine not having the benefit of almost a century of knowledge from my family. Society needs to let go of the expectation that we need to do as others do to be “cool” or to “fit” with society. If society as a whole chooses to throw away family, then I don’t want to be like them.


From Stephanie – My family and my husbands family don’t really do anything “family” at all.My boys will be 4 and 5 this year. Things have gotten so materialistic and techy. I have decided to home school my boys. They need a good family base. They need to be able to live and have fun. This year they will help plant veggies and such and will enjoy it and I will enjoy teaching them and having that special time with them while we learn together. People have lost that family bond and I am not going to let it happen to my kids ?

What do you think caused the breakup of extended families (or families and sense of belonging in general)? Is it time for families – by blood or by choice – to come together again? Please leave a comment below to share your thoughts.

More food for thought:

You may also enjoy:

A Common Sense Homesteading reader discussion on the state of the extended family - what caused its breakup, and whether it's time for it to return.

Note: The images used in this post are from different family gatherings. Some members of the family are no longer with us, there have been divorces, kids are grown and moved away. It’s a rare thing that big groups get together anymore.

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