We’re All In This Together

Thoughts on evolving the family into the 21st century

One of the articles in Caring For Families (IC#21)
Originally published in Spring 1989 on page 60
Copyright (c)1989, 1997 by Context Institute

How can we help "the family" and its relationship with society to evolve in a more humane and sustainable direction? As we’ve been putting this issue together I’ve found myself coming back to a few central themes. In this closing article, I’d like to share these themes, building on much from the previous articles.


The first thing we need to do is recognize that the world has gone through profound changes since World War II. Many of these affect the family and are likely irreversible. As long as we avoid a worldwide disaster (e.g. a nuclear war), we are likely to continue to have:

  • a "full" planet without open frontiers for easy expansion;
  • lifetimes that extend well beyond the child raising years, often beyond 80;
  • effective means of contraception;
  • the spread of education throughout society and especially to both genders; and
  • modern technologies for rapid travel and communications.

Taken together, these factors essentially guarantee a broad diversity of "family" forms (married with and without children, singles, single parents, or … you name it!); a decreasing proportion of children in an increasingly adult society; and the blurring and diversification of gender roles in both the workplace and home.

At the same time, the child-raising years have become the most economically difficult phase of family life. In the U.S. and around the world, the burden of poverty is borne disproportionately by children. If we are going to move in a humane and sustainable direction, something has got to change.


While there is growing awareness of these new realities, our society has developed a set of attitudes that has helped cause our present problems and stands in the way of positive change. Two of the most serious areas are:

Towards Children * Attitudes towards children have gone through an amazing transformation in the past 40 years. For all of human history before World War II, the earth seemed huge compared to human activity, and we understandably saw ourselves as fragile in the face of overwhelming nature. At both a symbolic and a practical level children were the embodiment of our ability to survive. More children meant more workers, more security, more prestige, and more satisfaction – just as they are in the Third World today.

But now we see the Earth as small and fragile, struggling under the burden of human population. Our survival now seems to depend on fewer, not more, children. At a personal level, children have become an economic burden – a luxury to be enjoyed (maybe) if you can afford it, or a millstone to keep you in poverty if your life takes a wrong turn. There seems little motivation left to support our interest in children other than sentimentality and habit, and it is apparently hard enough for people to muster up these for their own children, much less anybody else’s. For many, the new attitude seems to be "Children? Who needs ’em?"

One of the "logics" through which this attitude gets translated into policy goes like this:

1) We want to stop (or reverse) population growth;

2) Within the industrialized middle class, our child bearing is limited partly because of economic pressures;

3) We are therefore afraid that supporting families will encourage everyone (and especially the poor) to have more children.

While this new attitude may be understandable, its results are disastrous. Fortunately the evidence to support a more positive approach is all around us. The "logic" of our current negative attitude is based on assumptions that have been proven wrong. We now know that:

1) Better conditions for poor families lead to fewer, not more children (see article by Lappé and Schurman in this issue).

2) Not investing in children and families is stupid. The additional cost to society of greed, addiction, unemployment, health problems, crime, etc. resulting from poor childhoods far outweighs the imagined savings.

It is also true that the world’s current crises are not caused simply by too many people, but by too many people who (either because they are disempowered, uncaring or both) act in their short term interest in ways that harm the long term interest of the Earth as a whole. What the world needs is not necessarily fewer people, but more caring and capable people. Time is too short to give up on changing the hearts, minds and behaviors of today’s adults – but it is foolish not to do everything possible to influence tomorrow’s adults.

So what is an appropriate 21st-century attitude towards children? I would suggest that it is simply: "The Earth needs quality childhoods – for every child." From this start will follow so much else that the world critically needs.

Towards Paid and Unpaid Work * Here again our present attitudes block us from making needed changes. It is often said that we don’t adequately value unpaid work, especially household work (largely done by women). While I agree, it seems to me that at least as insidious is our failure to see the profound interdependence between unpaid work and the marketplace.

We have developed (and society maintains) the strange illusion that what we earn in the marketplace is totally the result of our own labors. But our earnings in the marketplace are made possible not only by the support of our family, but also by (for example) the efforts of countless parents who raised and educated our customers, co-workers, and others who provide us with all kinds of services. We have been quite content to take this type of work for granted, as a free good – just as we have taken the bounty of the natural world.

It is as if we were self-absorbed clerks at a checkout counter in a huge supermarket, collecting money and never stopping to think about who is stocking the shelves! We just assume that the money coming in is all due to our own efforts. Wouldn’t it be more legitimate to see ourselves as collecting our income on behalf of all the many people and natural systems whose unpaid work makes the marketplace possible?

From this perspective, money that goes from businesses and wage earners (via taxes or otherwise) to assist the otherwise unpaid work within families and natural systems is not charity, but a rightful redistribution of the value generated by those outside the marketplace.

The hundreds of practical questions about how such redistribution would work need to be dealt with in due course. But if we start from the recognition that the marketplace owes a lot to the rest of life, these specific questions could be resolved with much less grief.


Is this just a rationale for higher taxes? Not at all! First, this is a question of priorities, not quantities. (If we understood our real security needs, would we be spending so much on arms and so little on prenatal health care?) Second, properly investing in children and families can greatly reduce later expenditures to cope with the social problems resulting from neglect. And third, the issues here are much bigger and deeper than just money. To make effective changes, we are going to have to grapple with fundamental questions about the way our lives and our society are structured.

The Lifecycle * For example, at the root of many major social problems is the way we view (and institutionalize) the various stages of life. In the conventional, though obsolete, model there are only three stages:

  • youth, when you are a dependent getting trained for adulthood;
  • adulthood, when you "contribute to society" (supposedly along one unswerving career path) either through your work or your family; and
  • retirement, when you are freed from responsibilities and are expected to be on vacation until you die.

Longer lifespans and fewer children make both adulthood and retirement too monolithic. A more appropriate model, both in terms of society’s needs and the reality of people’s lives, would have periods of both "training" and "retirement" sprinkled throughout an adulthood that stretches from late teens to the end of life. Such an adulthood would contain many "career" cycles interspersed with times of retraining and rejuvenation. For some, one of these cycles might include parenting. Some might do volunteer service. In any case, as long as you had abilities society would not shut the door on your contributions.

Community * Many people understand that the single most effective thing we can do to address a whole range of family-related social dilemmas – such as the care of the young, the role and care of the elderly, and all the problems that grow out of the alienation and isolation of American life – is to strengthen face-to-face community. There are many useful programs based on this idea, yet they often seem to be little more than band-aids. What’s wrong?

The example of cohousing [see article in this issue] provides a big clue. How could we hope for any fundamental improvement in community life while there is such a deep anti-community bias built into the very architecture of our cities and towns? Until we’re willing to rearrange that architecture, we haven’t gone deep enough.

Does this mean rebuilding all our housing? Fortunately, no. A number of people (see IC #14 and the book Sustainable Communities by Van der Ryn and Calthorpe) have begun exploring ways to retro-fit urban and suburban communities through changing street layouts, merging backyards and converting a few houses into community buildings.

The major obstacles to such a redesign of community are not financial but governmental – old attitudes crystallized in thousands of local, state and federal regulations. Changing these would take years of effort; but if a broad-based movement were to develop that understood how valuable such a redesign could be at a personal, family, community and even global level, our communities would be reborn within a decade.

I don’t mean to say that cohousing and designs like it are the only way to strengthen face-to-face community. Rather, they are examples of how boldly we need to think and act if we are to create a humane and sustainable culture.

Family Skills * Not quite so dramatic, yet no less important, is our approach to the skills required to be an effective and constructive family member. For all their problems, communities of the past provided more role models for children, and most people did well enough to meet the needs of their times. But in today’s world, where children get much of their exposure to adult life through the fantasy world of the media, many people are clearly ill-equipped to handle the realities of family life. We are starting to react with various remedial programs to some of the grosser problems that result from this lack of skill (such as the abuse of children and spouses); but again, as valuable as these programs are, they don’t go deep enough.

We need to recognize that good family skills – like parenting, communications skills, and money management – aren’t an automatic result of growing up, even in reasonably healthy families. We need to make sure that training in these skills is readily available for everyone, just as we currently do for such things as driving a car. Here we have much to learn from the Scandinavians [see Swedish Family Policy in this issue].

Whether funded by government or supported more informally, it is important that these skills reach, in appropriately targeted ways, all family members. I am especially aware of the need to reach the angry, frustrated, outwardly proud but inwardly low self-esteem men who are often part of, or were once connected to, dysfunctional families. They must be reached in ways that make sense to them well before their lack of family and life skills causes irreversible damage to yet another generation.

Many of the changes I have described here would definitely benefit from strong support from government, business, the media, and education. Yet we don’t have to wait for these institutions. Progress can be made in all these directions at a personal and informal community level while we are also working on broader institutional change.

Together with issues of the environment and the economy, these family-related issues are critical to planetary survival during the next few decades. We’re all in this together, and the time to act is now.

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