It was George P. Murdock, a Yale and Pittsburgh anthropologist, who coined the term “ nuclear family.” He did so in 1949, the same year the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb. “Among the majority of the peoples on earth,” Murdock wrote, “nuclear families are combined, like atoms in a molecule, into larger aggregates.” Families consisting of married parents with children under the age of 18 children existed before 1949, of course; the nuclear family had been lived, if not described as such, for some time—since the Industrial Revolution, Marxists once proclaimed, though the historian Peter Laslett detected vital signs of the nuclear life as far back as the age of Chaucer.
In the early 1960s, with the Kennedy family in the White House, the nuclear family never looked so good. Now, in 2001, that family arrangement declines in front of our eyes—and in more ways than one. Last year’s census revealed that just over 23 percent of Americans live as nuclear families. As a New York Times editorial said: “The percentage of married-couple households with children under 18 has declined to 23.5 percent of all households in 2000 from 25.6 percent in 1990, and from 45 percent in 1960. … The number of Americans living alone, 26 percent of all households, surpassed, for the first time, the number of married-couple households with children.”
Life is one thing, television is another, but don’t expect this fall’s programming to make up for what’s missing all around. The nuclear family is disappearing from television, too. An advocacy group called Children Now has issued an assessment of what you will see this fall, and as Julie Salamon, the Times’ TV critic, writes: “The organization reports that the nuclear family is disappearing from network prime time even faster than in real life. Only about 11 percent of recurring prime-time characters appearing on the six broadcast networks are parents of any kind … . And only 61 percent of those parents are still married. … Who says that television doesn’t reflect reality?”