Back in 1992, the then-president of the United States took on one of his most unlikely opponents – an eccentric family from Springfield with only four digits on each hand. The confrontation came in a speech in which George H.W. Bush called for a return to what some call “traditional family values”: “We are going to keep on trying to strengthen the American family,” the president declared, “to make American families a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons.”
You probably know all about The Simpsons. But younger readers may be wondering about The Waltons, a TV show set in rural Virginia about a hard-working family with seven children struggling to survive in the Great Depression. The show ran throughout the 1970s and despite – or perhaps because – of that decade’s social and economic upheaval was a big hit. When President Bush compared the crazy antics of the Simpsons with the daily struggles of the Waltons, his listeners knew exactly what he was getting at.
Ironically, these days it’s now the Simpsons who look a bit, well, old-fashioned. Increasingly, they reflect an idea of the family as we used to think about it, and not the diversity of today’s modern families. So, how do today’s families compare to TV’s most famous clan, the Simpsons?
For starters, the Simpsons model increasingly represents just one version of how we live today. Across OECD countries, just under three out of five households are made up of a mom, dad and kids, according to the OECD Family Database. People living on their own account for more than a quarter of households and single-parent households for around a tenth. The remainder is accounted for by extended families with grandparents, families living with other families and other arrangements.
By modern standards, the Simpsons family is also big. True, this family of five – mom, dad and three kids – can’t match the Waltons’ seven kids, but it’s well above the size of the “average” couple’s family, which has fewer than two children.
Marge and Homer Simpson are also striking in that, after all these years, they’re still married. In almost all OECD countries, divorce rates have risen since the 1970s. They’re highest in the US, where they were also relatively high in the 1970s, and lowest in Chile. One striking feature of the data is that, although more couples are divorcing now than in the past, they’re not – apparently – making any less of an effort to keep their marriages going. In recent decades, the duration of marriages that end in divorce hasn’t changed all that much; it typically ranges between 10 and 15 years.
Over the years, Marge has made numerous attempts to find work – she’s sold property, cleaned offices and even joined the police force. But despite this, she always seems to wind up as a fulltime mom. Again, that’s pretty unusual in OECD countries, where on average just under two out of three moms go out to work, a proportion that can rise to over three out of four in northern Europe. Still, perhaps Marge’s decision to stay at home is not too surprising: In all OECD countries, moms like Marge with three or more children are much less likely to go out to work.
Despite its early critics – and those who say it’s no longer as funny as it used to be –The Simpsons has shown remarkable staying power. It’s currently celebrating its 25th season with no end in sight: “… I can’t see why we wouldn’t go to 30 [years] … and why we can’t go to 40 or even 50,” producer Al Jean told The Daily Telegraph. How will OECD families look in 2039? Less like The Simpsons, perhaps, and more like those in another hit TV show, Modern Family. Its families include a mom and dad with kids, a second-marriage combining kids from two families and a gay couple with an adopted daughter.
What would the Waltons make of that?
OECD research on children and families
Doing Better for Families (OECD, 2011)