Neolocal nuclear family and the European economy

_ Felix Menzel, chairman, Recherche Dresden. 25 March 2022.*

Outside of the scientific community, the polymath Rolf Peter Sieferle must have remained unknown throughout his life. But then, a year after his suicide in 2016, he caused a media scandal with his small booklet Finis Germania that made waves.[1] However, it would be fatal to see in Sieferle only a critic of the overly mystical-ritualized coming to terms with the past. Rather, his earlier works show that he understood the emergence of modern technical civilization like no other.

This becomes clear, for example, in his essay “Family, Environment and Europe’s Special Way” (2008).[2] In it he compares the European family pattern that has existed for more than a thousand years with that of other regions of the world. His thesis is that because natural disasters were very rare in Europe compared to other continents, the „neolocal nuclear family“ was able to establish itself here, which was „pre-adapted to the coming industrial mode of production“.

With this, Sieferle contradicts the commonly held view that the decision to have fewer children is a consequence of industrialization, prosperity and modern life. This may be true given today’s levels of refusal to give birth. It cannot be denied that the number of single and two-person households has increased massively since the 1970s, while there are hardly any families with two or more children living together under one roof. The Federal Statistical Office records a continuous decline in relatively large households from 28.1 to currently around ten percent over the last 50 years.[3] The end result is an anonymous mass society that sheds all ties and, due to the lack of offspring but lush social systems, will sooner or later have serious economic problems.

However, anyone who contrasts this anonymous mass society with an average of 1.5 children per woman with a romantically charged extended family as a social model misjudges the European special path, according to Sieferle. He emphasizes: “The alleged ‘traditional’ patriarchal extended family cannot be proven in this area in historical times, so that the question of its dissolution through processes of ‘modernization’ does not arise at all.” The extended family as a “portfolio strategy for avoiding ruin” in Asia and other parts of the world was an understandable reaction to natural catastrophes and served to protect against biographical setbacks (death, illness) and political turbulence.

Earthquakes, hurricanes, floods and extreme climates repeatedly claimed up to 830,000 lives in China, India and other Asian countries. In contrast, the earthquake in Italy in 1693, which killed 153,000 people as the largest European catastrophe in world history, was comparatively mild. The reason for this is the many differentiated microclimate zones in Europe. According to Sieferle, these enabled the dominant model of the nuclear family, which interwoven sustainability with economic dynamism.

Perhaps the best illustration of why family structure affects the economic system is a nineteenth-century anecdote. When British engineers were building a railway network in India, local workers preferred to carry wheelbarrows and their contents on their heads rather than push them. The reasoning behind this was simple: Indians worried about their relatives, who might become unemployed if they were too productive themselves. They thought that the work and the wages would be distributed most fairly if there were no aids. This thinking is typical of the extended family. The patriarch must see how he can involve his entire clan in his own economic activities and is obliged to take care of them.

Even in a country like China, where the birth rate has reached Western levels, this tradition has left its mark well into the 21st century. The economic historian Werner Abelshauser thus emphasizes that the family level still has to be given outstanding importance in the Chinese economy today. The term „guanxi“ has become commonplace for this, and it expresses the importance of good, personal relationships that pave the way for cooperation.[4] The European, on the other hand, much prefers unambiguous contracts between legal entities. Family ties play almost no role in everyday business life. There are historical reasons for this, whose formative power Sieferle is particularly interested in: “The basic principle of the neo-local nuclear family is that a new family is founded with marriage, i.e. the couple does not join an existing family.” anyone who is economically qualified to be the head of the family, i.e. who can afford their own household, can become the head of the family“. The strength of the European social structure was based on the fact that it motivates its own citizens to a high degree to cut their cords from their parents’ homes at an early stage. But this could only be achieved through “thrift, discipline and patience.”

This unconscious promotion of the individual performance principle and the incentive for social advancement also had an effect on the time after marriage. While the extended family stays together on a farm or at least in a village, the nuclear family is downright forced to move spatially. Sieferle explains: “The number of inhabitants in a village was completely replaced every 200 years.” This was already the case in the Middle Ages and not just since industrialization, as is sometimes suggested.

One could assume that the European social structure, as outlined by Sieferle, is geared entirely towards progress, economic growth and the economization of all areas of life. However, this interpretation misinterprets the historical context. The neolocal nuclear family was not a strategic decision made by nothing but homines oeconomici, but pure necessity to prevent explosive population growth, for which the natural resources would have been lacking at the front and at the back

Between the years 800 and 1800, the European population increased sevenfold. That sounds like a rapid increase at first, but it corresponds to an annual growth rate of just 0.2 percent, which means around 2.1 births per woman. Sieferle therefore takes the position that the European form of birth control through late marriage and Christian sexual morals led to optimal population carrying capacity. It was therefore a sustainable system that aimed to balance young talent and scarce resources. This balance was essential for survival, as the large number of villages died out in the first half of the 14th century showed, when the ecological limits of the then agricultural solar energy system were exceeded for a short time.

A departure from this model only became possible with the success of industrialization. This affects both the large families in the lower class, who only form a “consumer household” and are protected by the welfare state, and the families with few children in the middle and upper classes, who see having their own offspring as a cost factor that disturbs their hedonism. Sieferle saw this disastrous “transformation of the European family pattern” towards an anonymous mass society, but did not coin a generic term for it. What can be said is that only the European small family with two to three children promises sustainability as a social model and is an impressively efficient model. Of course, the state cannot and should not prescribe this under any circumstances. It has to accept all life plans from the extended family of seven to the unmarried permanent single. Nevertheless, it is required to keep an eye on the long-term survival of its peoples.

This can succeed if, on the one hand, we bid farewell to the liberal utopia of the “invisible hand” and, on the other hand, defend our natural interests with regard to global population development. With his research into family history, Sieferle has shown that there is no regulation-free society, at least in the economy. All human development is the result of hard work on one’s traditions. The self-improving system of natural freedom, on the other hand, is a brainchild, which he criticized in his work Epoch Change (1994) as a “divine planned economy”.[5] Consequently, we need the courage to pursue an active population policy that elevates the tried-and-tested model of the neolocal nuclear family to the role model again. In the long run, this makes economic sense to ensure our prosperity. In addition, the issue of global overpopulation must be on our agenda. Even if ten or twelve billion people could theoretically live on our planet thanks to improved technology, this is still a great ecological burden. Anyone who thinks sustainably and in the interests of Europe should therefore think about strategies to handle this development.

This begins with recognizing the absurdity of the status quo. Why does Europe take on the population surpluses of the rest of the world and via “development aid” subsidize countries that have not yet taken a single measure to manage birth rates? The answer is: because we have lost our world-historical compass.


[1] Sieferle R.P. (2016). Finis Germania. Antaios. URL:

[2] Sieferle R.P. (2008). Familie, Umwelt und der Sonderweg Europas. University of St. Gallen.  URL:

[3] Destatis (2018). Haushalte und Familien. URL:

[4] Abelshauser W. (2018).  Wertewandel und Wertevielfalt in der Wirtschaft. Roman-Herzog-Institut. URL:

[5] Sieferle R.P. (1994). Epochenwechsel. Die Deutschen an der Schwelle zum 21. Jahrhundert. Antaios. URL:

*Translated and republished with the kind permission of the author from the original publication: Menzel F. (2018). Familie und Ökonomie. Recherche D. Nr. 3. Chemnitz. URL:

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