Thursday, October 22, 2020

46. The Post-Nuclear Family: An Introduction (Demographic Doom Podcast)

This is the script for my Demographic Doom podcast episode (#46) recorded on 22 October 2020 (released on 23 October 2020). It may differ slightly from the final broadcast. This episode is available on major podcast platforms, including PodbeanApple Podcasts and a video version on YouTube. See the description on the YouTube version for extensive annotations, links and corrections. You can also comment on this episode there. (If you leave comments on this blog post, I might not see them.) The main website for this project is

I’m Glenn Campbell. I call myself a demographic philosopher. I’m looking at life and trying to predict the future through the lens of demography, or the study of human populations. I'm trying to view humanity from a distance, as aliens would see us from space.

Today is Oct 23, 2020, and I'd like to return to the core of my Demographic Doom project, which is designing a new family structure. It is evident to me that the traditional nuclear family isn't producing enough babies to sustain modern society and that it never will. Couples today might have one or two kids, but then they quit, because it's so damn expensive, and these one or two offspring don't make up for the many adults who have no children at all. 

So what do we replace the nuclear family with? I've been talking about this for over a year now on this podcast and my earlier videos, but I've come up with a new name for my proposal, so I'm going to start over from scratch. I used to call this idea the "modular family". Now I simply call it the “post-nuclear family”. It's what happens after the nuclear family, and the nuclear family is what we are comparing it to. Certain aspects of traditional families are being retained, while others are being rewritten, but the nuclear family is our starting point. Humans being humans, we can't except them to accept a radical restructuring of the families they have known for generations. Instead, I propose making a lot of incremental changes that might eventually lead to something radical, but that aren't so radical in themselves.

Although I've said a lot about this family structure in previous podcasts and videos, under the "modular family" name, but I'd like to forget about all that and start over, perhaps explaining it a little better. I'm still going to keep all those past episodes and videos for historical interest, but I'm going to restart my narrative as though you have never heard of my system before—which maybe you haven't. I'll then build upon this idea in future podcast episodes and in the big document I'm working on.

Before I describe my family structure, let me quickly describe the problem that prompted it. Modern civilization has a child production crisis in regards to both quantity and quality. The quantity issue is that developed countries are simply not producing enough babies to sustain their societies. You may have been taught in school that there's a population explosion on Earth, but that's a lie. It may have been true 60 years ago but not today. Today, only the poorest countries in Africa are still exploding in population. Nearly all the others are facing the prospect of a population implosion. Sure, the population of the planet is still growing, but the growth has slowed dramatically, and it will top out soon at something like 9 billion souls, from the 7.7 billion we have today. At that point, the world population is going to start heading down, and that decline has already started for dozens of countries.

This may sound like a good thing from an environmental standpoint. Fewer people ought to mean less pollution, right? But it is absolutely devastating from an economic standpoint. Countries that have gone deeply into debt can't possibly pay those debts off if their number of taxpayers fall. Furthermore, their populations are aging, with more ailing elderly people and not enough workers to support them. This is going to lead to a massive worldwide economic collapse which I've discussed at length in other podcasts. The trigger for the collapse appears to be the coronavirus, but it could have been anything. This crisis has been a long time coming, and it won't go away anytime soon. Furthermore, Mother Earth isn't going to be helped if governments collapse. It there is no powerful authority to enforce environmental regulations, and desperate people are going to go back to burning down forests and polluting rivers again.

There is also the second, more subtle problem of population quality. Children today are inconsistently raised, and they are often relegated to the least capable parents. Due to a phenomenon called the "demographic-economic paradox", fertility tends to be inversely related to wealth. Rich people have fewer babies. There is also a "demographic-education paradox", where the people with the most education have the fewest babies. The net effect is that the least qualified and most stressed members of society are doing most of the heavy work of producing the next generation. This has to have an effect on the quality of your citizenry over time.

No matter how you slice it, human civilization is heading for some bad times that are certain to last for decades. I can't offer any short-term solutions because I don't think there are any. Even if a country were to magically produce a lot of babies today—along the lines of the Baby Boom of the 1950s—it wouldn't do anything to address your country's economic woes for at least two decades. Furthermore, if the people you entice into parenthood are the poorest and weakest in your society, you're not going to be producing optimal citizens.

My solution is a very long-term one that might take 50 years or more to have an economic effect. Furthermore, I'm not pushing it as a solution to the problems of broad society. Instead it is a solution to the problems of your community. You probably can't do anything to save your country, but you might be able to save your community. What is a community? Well, it could be a religious group or your kinship clan or some other group who you associate with. A community can form around shared values, whatever they may be. Maybe you look at your community and realize, "We are going to become extinct if we don't produce some children to carry on our ways." If you come to that realization, and it fills you with panic, then we can talk. Maybe I have a solution for you.

I call my proposed structure the "post-nuclear family". You might call it the nuclear family on steroids. It's bigger, stronger and hopefully longer-lasting than the traditional nuclear family. The starting premise of the post-nuclear family is pretty simple: Instead of one or two adults raising one or two kids in a single household, let's have a large number of children raised in a single household supported by multiple adults. How many children? I'm thinking between 9 and 18 kids raised under one roof. They are evenly spaced every one or two years from birth to age 18 and beyond. This is certainly a departure from today's families of 1 to 3 kids, but 9 kids was not unusual in humanity's agricultural era. This was your typical farm family, where your children were your labor force.

The advantage of a big family is economy of scale—you can buy the industrial size of everything and don't have to duplicated fixed assets like washing machines. You need only one adult on duty at any one time to care for 9 to 18 kids instead of the current ratio of roughly one to one. You've also got a captive labor force. We don't work children in the fields like we use to, but it is entirely reasonable to have older children care for younger ones. You don't need to be an adult with a PhD to change diapers or talk baby-talk to a baby. Any 10- or 12-year old can do that. Any family needs adult supervision, but the idea is to turn the family into a cooperative enterprise where everyone cares for everyone else in a structured environment that everyone understands, thereby minimizing the need for adult care and intervention.

How does the post-nuclear family begin? It can start quite simply without violating too many norms. Several pair-bonded couples, who either have children or plan to have them, decide to join forces and raise all of their children in a single household. The mothers coordinate their births so that the children are evenly spaced—that is, a new baby born every year or every other year. In a few years, you've got a full household of 9 to 18 kids. Now you've got the all the economies of scale I just mentioned. Only one adult needs to be on duty at any one time, so you've solved your daycare problem. This frees up all the other adults for conventional work or to pursue their own private interests.

This sounds like a good idea—doesn't it?—but of course it raises questions, like why hasn't this been tried before, and my job is to resolve all these questions based on my theories and calculations. I feel like an engineer designing a bridge. The basic idea is simple: we want to span this river, and we've chosen a way to to it: maybe a suspension bridge. Now the challenge is dealing with all the complications and details that might get in the way, including working with real materials and real humans.

For example, how do the parents divide up their duties and resolve their disputes. It is hard enough to get two adults to cooperate on parenting; how do we get 6 or 8 people to work together? And how do you support this whole operation financially? Every question you answer just opens up more questions, so I can see that as the Master Designer of this plan, I've got my work cut out for me. History is filled with failed utopias, and I don't want my idea to end up in that trash heap, so I've got to work out the problems in advance. I admit that I might never live to see this plan in operation, but I can still publish a blueprint that others can work with. It's just like designing a bridge. I can make calculations based on my knowledge of the materials—that is, my understanding of human nature—but it is up to others to implement the plan and to modify it for the real world.

I will no doubt record many future episodes trying to run down some of the complex issues of this family system, but in this episode I just want to describe it. What will this family look like after it has been established for a few years, and how will it operate? 

So the starting element is several couples deciding to raise their children together, but I want to add something else: The family never dies. Decade after decade, it will always have the same number of children: 9 to 18. As one child ages out of the core household, another baby is born into it.

In the traditional nuclear family, childrearing ends when the one mother loses her fertility, usually in her 40s. Although there may be 9 children at some point in the family's history, that's only a peak, not a sustained number. Children eventually age out of the family and are not replaced. The household dwindles to zero again as the parents retire and eventually die. The problem with this system that their parenting experience is lost. After you've raised 9 kids, you've probably learned a thing or two about how to do it well, but then you quit, and that experience goes to the grave with you. The families of today are fleeting, which means they have little in the way of institutional memory. 

The aim in keeping the family going is to preserve its internal culture. By "culture" I mean the software that the family runs on—that is, all of its procedures, policies and mythologies. If you have a system the gets a large number of children to work together smoothly, that's a great accomplishment, and you don't want to lose it. You want to keep the childrearing unit going indefinitely to allow the culture to be passed from child to child.

For example, a central part of family life is the preparation of meals. I think kids should be doing this, not adults. Adults provide the raw food and maybe some training, but the kids should do all the work, and be organized in such a way that they're not killing each other. Once you have a system for meal preparation in place, it becomes part of the family's culture. It's like, "This is the way we do things." and it's something that older kids can pass to younger kids without much adult intervention. If the family expires, you lose all those habits and procedures. You could try to put all this wisdom in a book, but it's not the same as building non-verbal habits over time.

Culture applies to everything the family does. You could see it as the family's most valuable asset. That's what you're trying to do when you raise children: You're trying to instill a culture into them, which consist of values, language and a way of doing things. It's a culture of morality, a culture of cooperation. And the best way to teach this culture is through practical lessons from the child's earliest age. Preparing meals and caring for your younger siblings aren't just chores; they are essential exercises in socialization, and once you get this whole system working, you don't want to just throw it all away, which is what happens in the nuclear family. That's why I see the post-nuclear family as a permanent institution that goes on forever: always 9 to 18 kids for as long as the Earth remains habitable.

A permanent family with a stable number of children begs the question: "Where do the babies come from?" Initially, the founding mothers provide them, but what happens when their fertility runs out in twenty years. That's a complex issue I'll tackle in a separate podcast. For now, I'll only say that the stork brings them. You know: a big bird that lives on roofs, carries babies in a little sack and drops it down the chimney. Hey, that's where I came from, so it's good enough for now.

Why do I choose that family size: 9 to 18 kids? I choose it because it allows for optimal age spacing between the children. It maximizes efficiency while giving each child his or her own special place in the family. If you are 8 years old, and your next oldest sibling is 10 years old and your next younger sibling is 6 years old, you have a unique position in the family where no one is directly competing with you. There is also a clear hierarchy. Your 10-year-old sibling has more authority and responsibility than you do, because their skills and maturity are generally more advanced. It is okay if older kids get more privileges owing to their age, because you know you'll get the same privileges yourself someday.

It would be different if there were three 8-year-olds in one family. Then they would all be competing with each other, and the most charismatic of the three could end up monopolizing all the family's attention. With even spacing between kids, everyone knows their place; everyone is special and hopefully no one gets left behind.

A family of 18 kids implies one child born every year, with only a year's spacing between children. To me, this is a practical maximum. Beyond it, the family turns into an industrial farm. If you crowd the children together, there is too much competition among same-age children, and each child loses his or her special place. 

I actually think that the optimal spacing for any family—nuclear or post-nuclear—is a child every two years, or 9 kids under the age of 18. The only reason you would want to make the spacing narrower is if your were planning to split the family at a later date. The post-nuclear family divides in a process I call mitosis—like the splitting of a single-celled organism. This is a way to expand the number of families while still retaining the family's hard-won internal culture. During mitosis, you split the family down the middle like a zipper. Half of the kids stay in the original household and half move into another house, not far away. Your next older and next younger siblings turn into your cousins, who you may still be close to but you're not directly living with them anymore. Mitosis may sound traumatic at first, but the reward for it is all the extra space you get. Instead of one family of 18 kids, there are now two families of 9 kids, each of whom now gets more space, freedom and specialness within the family.

Here is another wrinkle I'd like to introduce: Although the post-nuclear family is managed by multiple adults, I propose that none of them actually live in the main house with the kids. The parents live however they choose in their own homes or apartments, much as they do today, coming to the main house only for specific duties. This isn't a commune, where all adults share everything, or some kind of kinky group marriage. Adult members of the family are permitted to live their own independent lives, pursuing their own interests and careers, not much different than how they would live without the family. The only restriction is that they have to live close enough to the main household to perform their parental duties, which are usually scheduled well in advance.

I want to keep the adults at a distance, because don't want too many chefs in the kitchen. Each parent is officially on duty in the household for a certain scheduled period. This helps avoid conflicts between parents and keeps them from stepping on each other's toes. You may think that having a constant turnover of parents would be traumatic to the children. Don't they need secure bonds with parents they see every day? Yes, they do, but their strongest "parental" bonds are with the older children who raised them. All other adults play more of a grandparent or aunt or uncle role, giving the children special attention but not seeing them every day. 

The only adult family members would might live in the same household as the kids are the sick or elderly who need ongoing care. I picture them living in a wing off the main house, where they can be cared for both by children and other adults.

And this gets into the other functions of a family. A family is not merely a childrearing system. It is a lifelong support structure. It is a mutual aid society. If you get in trouble, you know your family will help, usually without payment. This is especially true when you enter the final phase of your life when your physical systems start failing. No one ever truly "retires" in the post-nuclear family. If you stop working in a conventional job, you are still expected to continue your "grandparent" role of caring for other family members. When your own faculties fade, you know that you yourself will be cared for if necessary—so long as you have been loyal to the family all your life and paid your family taxes.

That's another thing: family taxes. Every adult is expected to pay them in one way or another, in accordance with some kind of formula. Perhaps it is a percent of your income, as shown on your government tax return. Perhaps you pay your dues through your labor on behalf of the family, such as bearing children for them, but when you are out in the world making a living, you are expected to pay a portion of your income to the family. This is the main way that the family supports itself financially. Family taxes apply both to the founding parents and to the children who graduate from the family. Family taxes are voluntary, in the sense that no one can force you to pay, but if you don't pay you risk losing family services and the respect of the people you grew up with.

So that's probably enough for now. In this episode, I have introduced eight elements of the post-nuclear family system, which are these:
  1. The family has between 9 and 18 kids raised under the same roof by a consortium of adults.
  2. Children are evenly spaced in age, from infancy to adulthood.
  3. Most of the routine internal labor of the household is provided by the children themselves.
  4. The number of children is held constant over time. As one child ages out of the family, a new child is born into it.
  5. The adults who manage the household do not live there themselves. They live as they choose in their own separate lodging.
  6. Most adult parental duties are scheduled in advance. The rest of the time, each adult can live as they wish.
  7. Elderly, sick or disabled members of the family are cared for in a location close to the children.
  8. Every adult family member must pay their family taxes throughout their working life.
  9. The number of families can be increased through a system of mitosis, which divides one family of 18 kids into two families of 9 while preserving the family's culture.
Clearly I have a lot more to talk about, because each of these points raises new issues. For example, I failed to answer the question of where the babies come from. I'd much rather talk about this hypothetical family structure than about the current economic, demographic and health crisis, because I can't do much about that right now. The only thing I can really say about the current crisis is that the sky is falling, so you better get out of the way. I want to focus more on this post-nuclear family, because it might eventually have some impact on the world. 


Subscribe to this podcast for more ruminations from a demographic philosopher and more discussions of this theoretical family structure. I encourage your input. If you have anything to say, you can email me or post a comment to the YouTube version of this episode.


Written, recorded and edited by Glenn Campbell. For annotations, links and corrections, see the description on the video version of this podcast. You can also leave comments there. See here for all my podcast scripts on this blog.