Family breakdown

Experimental visualization of narrower problems
Other Names:
Dependence on family breakdown
Instability of the family
Dismembered families
Family disintegration
Declining family values
Disruption of traditional family systems
Family disorganization
Decay of family life

Family disorganization implies maladjustment, malfunctioning, psychological decay, and the existence of family problems. Whether the family is taken to mean a nuclear, extended or single parent family, the maladjustment of family life to prevailing conditions may result in emotional stress, crime, juvenile delinquency, promiscuity, poverty, and (ultimately) family breakdown. It may be the result of cultural invasion (primitive tribes and developing countries) or too rapid technical and economic change without corresponding social change.

Families may breakdown in the form of marriage breakdown, or as a break in the traditional structure of the family, nuclear or extended; it may also be indicated by a break in traditional family roles, such as a dominant father: submissive mother and children. Families also breakdown when destitute parents sell their children into slavery; or in a social welfare system when children may be taken from destitute parents and put into institutions. Homelessness and natural disasters, including death, may also split up families. Family breakdown may cause a loss of identity and severe adjustment problems for the individual, and have additional consequences for the society, depending on the nature of the community.


Breakdown of the family due to marriage breakdown appears to be more frequent in developed countries, whereas that due to a break in traditional family structure is more marked in developing countries, where there has been cultural invasion; traditional family roles are changing more rapidly in developing countries with fast technological and economic change. Industrialization tends to break up the extended family and uproot workers from their traditional communities; it hastens the decay of those devices of self-help and mutual aid which, within the limits permitted by the generally low standards of living in the rural society, offer some protection to all members of the group, irrespective of their ability.

The migration of a large proportion of the able-bodied and younger men from rural, tribal areas to wage-earning occupations in urban industries frequently leaves the family system unbalanced and incapable of properly carrying out its conventional social and economic tasks, including the production of food. The balance of primitive agriculture is upset and no new markets appear to to give rise to a new equilibrium.

The subordination of the elementary needs of the family and the community to the manpower requirements and technical exigencies of the factory system finds physical expression in barracks systems, factory dormitories and compounds and workers tenements, workshop-sleeping and street-sleeping, and in numerous variants of shanty-towns, bidonvilles and native locations. Bad housing contributes to the disruption of the worker's family life and augments the losses which the traditional family system sustains in the course of adaptation to the industrial environment.

In the UK a 1993 study correlated a 10-fold increase in reported crime in the period between 1955 and 1991 with growth of divorce, cohabitation, and births outside marriage. The number of registered marriages in the UK dropped from 436,346 in 1974 to 375,410 in 1990 and was estimated to be continuing to drop at the rate of 7% per year. Divorces increased from 153,386 in 1961 to 153,386 in 1990, with nearly 50% of marriages ending in divorce in 1991. The number of birth outside marriage rose from 54,000 in 1961 to 236,000 in 1991, whilst births inside marriage fell from 890,000 in 1961 to 556,000 in 1991. The proportion of women who had cohabited with their future husbands prior to marriage rose from approximately 5% in the mid-1960s to over 50% in 1991.


In the new industrial society the urban worker who is crippled, unemployed, or too old to work may have no tie with any group that feels a direct responsibility for his welfare. At the same time, the instability of the urban family results in increasing numbers of deserted mothers and abandoned children. In many cases, begging becomes their only means of livelihood. In south and south-eastern Asia, for example, there are vast numbers of persons disabled by disease and malnutrition, many of them without the customary claims on family or village and for whose sustenance the modern economy fails to provide.

Related Problems:
Son-less families
Reduced By:
Problem Type:
C: Cross-sectoral problems
Date of last update
13.11.2017 – 15:58 CET