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3 Origins of the Nuclear Family

A nuclear family is a household that consists of a couple and their children. This has some variety such as a family with step-siblings. However, the nuclear family is much smaller and simpler than extended families that can include a great variety of members. The following are notes on the origins of the nuclear family.

Atomic Age

In the United States, the nuclear family was the most common family structure in the period 1950-1980. During this time, nuclear weapons and power were new technologies that were viewed as defining the age. As such, it is common to assume that nuclear family is a reference to a social feature of the "Atomic Age." This is a reasonable train of thought but is incorrect.

Word Origins

The term nuclear family was coined by social anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski in the 1920s. At the time, the word nuclear meant central, essential and foundational. This is based on the word nucleus -- the central core of an atom. In this context, the nuclear family was viewed as the central structure of a family.

Social Origins

On a global basis, multigenerational households are historically the most common family structure. This was also a historically common structure in the United States that went into decline in the post-WWII era due to factors such as economic prosperity, urbanization and relocating far from relatives for work. From the viewpoint of economics, the United States has a large amount of land and resources to support separate households for grandparents and nuclear families. From approximately, 1950 to 1990 nuclear families were presented as the norm in American media such as television. However, by the 1990s the demographics of the United States had dramatically shifted away from the nuclear family due to factors such as divorce rates and this began to be reflected in the media and the adoption of more flexible norms of family structure.


The nuclear family is in demographic decline in the United States falling from 40.30% of households in 1970 to 17.8% of households in 2020. Households on the rise during this period include single person households, single parent households and extended family households including multigenerational households.
Overview: Nuclear Family
A household that consists of a couple and their children.
As Contrasted With
Single Person Households
Single Parent Families
Extended Families
Married Without Children
Non-family Households
Attributed to social anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski who coined the term in the 1920s long before the advent of nuclear weapons and power.
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Epic Meaning
Extended Family
Family Culture
Family Life
Family Traditions
Filial Piety
Household Items
Importance of Family
Nuclear Family
Personal Relationship
Quality Of Life
Role Of Family
Social Roles
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