In East Asia, extended families were dissolved by rapid economic development. Despite rapid economic growth since the 1980s, India has seen little change in the prevalence of nuclear families. Why is this? The answer lies in the KIND of economic development India has experienced. Indians tend to work for small family-owned businesses. This pattern of structural transformation and occupational diversification has strengthened multigenerational households.
By caring for each other, extended families provide crucial support. India is not unusual, given its level of income. Intergenerational co-residence remains common in many developing countries.
Unlike East Asia, Indian extended families are just as common in cities and villages. Urban couples are no more likely to live alone. Educational expansion isn’t driving change either. Less than 50% of male graduates form independent households – as detailed by Etienne Breton.
Economic development predicts intergenerational co-residence worldwide
Regular employment remains exceptional, across South Asia. Lacking job security or social insurance, families may prefer to pool resources and create their own safety net. Strong kinship ties endure partly because they provide consumption-smoothing insurance.
So we might expect intergenerational co-residence to wane with economic development – as suggested by this graph by Dante Sanchez Torres. India is not unusual for its level of income.
So is India likely to follow the Western model of nuclear families? Possibly, but I’m not sure. The prevalence of nuclear-living has remained constant in India, despite three decades of economic growth.
I suggest that intergenerational co-residence prevails alongside growth partly because strong family bonds encourage family businesses and low female employment, which in turn strengthen family ties.
Strong family bonds and demographic change
Families are incredibly important in India. They live together, run businesses, and support each other through hard times. For centuries, sons have lived with their parents, inherited land, continued the lineage, and performed ancestral rites. Kinship is intensive, especially in the north (where joint families are four times more common than the south). This fosters a strong cultural preference for intergenerational co-residence.
Demographic change also matters. As fertility falls and life expectancy increases, men have fewer siblings and are thus more likely to live with their (longer surviving) parents.
But demography and kinship intensity cannot fully explain persistence because East Asian countries shared these conditions yet nevertheless became more nuclear. In 1900, almost all Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Taiwanese families were extended. But with economic development, non-familial employment, and urbanisation, East Asians increasingly want to live separately. Adults still perform filial piety, but through remittances rather than co-residence.
Female employment is low in South Asia, as compared to East Asia.
Over the twentieth century, Japanese, South Korean, Taiwanese, and Chinese women increasingly migrated to work for factories and offices. The dual-earner model enhanced young couples’ economic independence.
Rural-urban migration is much lower in India. Moreover, female employment is low and falling. [ … ]