The family has always been at the center of Brazilian life, providing a nearly impregnable safety net as well as establishing the rules of engagement for daily survival.
Families are the glue that holds a culture together, certainly in Brazil and other developing countries. Families furnish the age-old wisdom handed down through generations on everything from preparing rice and beans to treating an itchy bug bite.
In Brazil, it’s not unusual to see three or four generations living under the same roof and attending the same parties. Family solidarity is paramount, offering a foundation for security and trust.
Retirement and nursing homes are uncommon; living alone is rare and older adults are cared for by their relatives. Families take vacations together even after the children are grown and have children of their own.
In the U.S. by comparison, more than half of the country is unmarried, and 25 percent of Americans live alone.
In Brazil, families go to the movies, restaurants, and the supermarket together, and they bring the children even if they are only infants. Not surprisingly, there is no word in Portuguese for “babysitter” because they don’t exist; there is no need for them. On the rare occasion that children aren’t accompanying their parents, another family member is watching them.
However, as Brazil bolts ahead into the 21st century, family life is changing.
Here are three fundamental transformations occurring in Brazilian families that are dramatically altering the country’s future.
First, just as in developed countries like the U.S., Brazilians’ cell phones now are as connected to their lives as their arms and legs. As a result, thanks to the amazing tools of the internet, the world beyond Brazil’s borders has opened up.
Parents stress with their children the importance of learning English and attending a university for future success. Teens from affluent families are mastering English by spending a year of high school in the U.S. or Canada. Those who become fluent in English can attend universities abroad for a bachelor’s or master’s degree.
The recession is also sending Brazilians abroad for work in places like Portugal. Single young women are opting for jobs as nannies in Ireland and the U.S.
Wealthy families are seizing an opportunity to invest in foreclosed real estate in Florida. It’s easier for the grandchildren to visit Disney World when their grandparents own a home in Orlando.
Thus, Brazilians have reasons to be outside the country. Coupled with broadening their geographic horizons, Brazilians are expanding their luxury horizons.
Brazilians know that U.S. products like iPhones and HP laptops are more reliable than Brazilian-made electronics, so if they can afford travel to the U.S., they buy electronics there for half the price they cost in Brazil.
Brazilians who rent cars in the U.S. enjoy the comfort of driving an SUV with an automatic transmission. Ownership of these huge cars has become popular among the upper class in Brazil, despite their using twice as much gas as typical cars and that gas costs double in Brazil what it costs in the U.S.
It’s impossible to rent a car in the U.S. with a manual transmission, and Brazilians see no reason why their lives shouldn’t be as comfortable as North Americans’ where SUVs are the popular form of transportation.
Brazilians who can afford to buy new apartments for one or two million reais (250.000 to 500.000 dollars) in the south of Brazil, where it’s colder, want builders to install some form of central heating like in the U.S., such as heated floors.
Unfortunately, life is never as easy as it appears on social media. People who desire greater luxury must find a way to pay for it. The entrepreneurial spirit remains vibrant in Brazil. While small businesses are the first to go broke, their numbers are increasing every week.
For those Brazilians lucky enough to be affluent, life hasn’t changed much. Upper class women in Brazil are content to be homemakers. Their husbands prefer they don’t work, and the mothers welcome the assistance of nannies in raising children.
However, middle-class and working-class families must struggle to accommodate their expanding consumer desires. Not surprisingly, there has been a steep rise in the number of women who are working outside the home.
Here lies the second fundamental change in the Brazilian family – for the first time in the country’s history, more than half of all Brazilian women are working outside the home.
What happens when mothers have jobs and fathers are home less than usual because they’re working longer hours? Family routines begin to disappear; family cohesion frays.
The altering of time-tested family rituals combined with the pervasive intrusion of the internet and American TV has reshaped the architecture of the Brazilian family.
With mothers working, Brazil has seen a boom in the number of private pre-schools. Daycare centers now accept children less than one year old.
Adolescents are spending endless hours on the internet and less time with their overworked parents. They devour Hollywood movies and TV series; they discover even small children in the U.S. have their own bedrooms.
Envious of American affluence, Brazilian adolescents are demanding more from their parents such as the newest technology and a greater right to privacy. American teens have more freedom than their Brazilian counterparts; for example, they are allowed to attend parties where there are no adults present.
In Brazil, there is no term for “helicopter parenting” because most parents operate this way. The closeness of families guarantees the monitoring of children.
The doors to children’s bedrooms are left open for parents to keep an eye on their activities. They know what their children are doing on the internet and who their friends are.
Brazilian parents don’t grant their children privacy, and children don’t keep secrets from their parents. Teens’ bedrooms in the U.S. have locks to keep out younger siblings and parents.
In the U.S. parents no longer have the right to see their child’s medical records after age 18, and parents need permission to discuss diagnoses of their child with a doctor.
American doctors who treat children, particularly girls, encourage parents to leave the examination room once a girl reaches puberty. Doctors believe this encourages a more open discussion of a girl’s personal health particularly as it relates to sexual activity.
The third structural change in the family: long-term planning illustrates it’s easier to have more luxuries if there are less children. Parents are choosing to have smaller families, and some couples have no children at all. Some women want children and are waiting for the right man who will be a good father. However, they may never find him or when they do, the women are too old to start a family.
Shrinking family size typically accompanies economic development worldwide. At its best, it reflects better educational and career opportunities for women and the social acceptance of the choice to be child-free.
The national birthrate in Brazil is now as low as in the U.S., about 1.7 children per woman. This means within 20 or 30 years, the total population of Brazil will peak and then begin to decline because 1.7 is below replacement level, the number necessary to maintain a stable population.
(U.S. population continues to rise, however, because of the influx of immigrants, who are not a significant factor in Brazil’s populace.)
With smaller families and more hours working, parents can afford to buy iPhones, take vacations abroad, send their children to private schools, and have apartments large enough so the children don’t share bedrooms.
Another disturbing off-shoot of economic development is although families can afford more luxuries, their diets become less healthy. Hardworking Brazilians have less time to cook, and fast food has entered the steady diet of busy people just as it did in the U.S.
In a country where having sufficient food was once a concern, now fifty percent of Brazilians are overweight thanks to their changing diet and the demands of video games, which discourage exercise.
Research shows many infants (6 -12 months) who are transitioning off breast milk are regularly receiving ultra-processed foods as some of their first introduction to solid foods.
What are the ramifications of these pivotal changes in the Brazilian family? The social fabric of Brazilian society is weakening as the country experiences radical changes at lightening speed. We know this because it’s already happened in the U.S.
Brazil’s hardworking parents and their adolescent children who are addicted to social media and envy the American way of life are stretching the once close-knit net of family life. This threatens the psychological backbone of healthy child development.
Without helicopter parents or social institutions to provide cultural continuity and ethical guidelines, American teens grow up without the essential elements that hold a society together.
When teens in the U.S. move into college dormitories, their greatest influencers are social media “friends” and their peers who lack the wisdom to guide young lives. Teens may be the victims of cyberbullying without their parents being aware of it.
U.S. teens enter the job market without a system of moral guidelines. They accept jobs thousands of kilometers away from their families. Young people in the U.S. trying to create a path to success and fulfillment must often contend with loneliness and social isolation.
Even when Americans find satisfying employment, their work colleagues do not become their friends. Work and personal life are separate in U.S. companies. A friend is not the same as a work colleague. This is the timbre of a developed country that Brazilians envy; it is the sound of youth in crisis.
What happens when family ties unravel, interdependence collapses, and consumerism expands? The very foundation of a culture splinters, and society is gripped by fear and solitude.
One hundred nineteen million Americans are taking prescription painkillers, tranquilizers, stimulants, or sedatives. There are 122 suicides every day in the United States.
Self-injury is a problem among young Americans. One in five American college students report having harmed themselves. Most frequently this takes the form of cutting, and it’s more common among girls than boys.
The U.S. has an epidemic of mental health problems as evidenced by the high number of suicides and the frequent occurrence of mass shootings. Just this past summer in the U.S., 126 people died in 26 different mass killings – that averages two mass shootings per week.
Hopelessness, paranoia, and loneliness are the likely causes for the decline in the mental health of Americans, and the crisis can be traced to the breakdown of socialization.
Social solitude also takes a toll on a country’s finances. In the U.S., an estimated US$ 6.7 billion in annual federal spending is attributable to social isolation among adults.
Poor social relationships are associated with a 29 percent increase in the risk of coronary heart disease and a 32 percent rise in the risk of stroke. In an article posted on November 10 in The New York Times, it was noted:
“Social isolation is more lethal than smoking 15 cigarettes a day, or than obesity, according to research published by Julianne Holt-Lunstad of Brigham Young University. Since obesity is associated in the United States with 300,000 to 600,000 deaths a year, the implication is that loneliness is a huge, if silent, killer.”
The decline in the collective fabric of society isn’t only an American problem. Last year, the government of Britain recognized the crisis and appointed a Minister for loneliness.
Humans are social animals, and the withering of interpersonal relations and connections to social institutions like the church and neighborhood clubs leaves people weak and vulnerable.
Among the earliest cultures, such as those in Amazon tribes, the most severe punishment is to be banished from the tribe. Today’s young people have invented a similar punishment for those deemed expendable. It’s called “cancel culture” and involves shunning personal interaction with someone by blocking them on social media.
When laws are broken, criminals are segregated from the rest of the population into prisons. The worst prisoners are kept in solitary confinement, a form of social torture as severe as depriving them of food.
According to a recent article in Folha de S. Paulo, between 2013 and 2017 there was an increase in Brazil of 225 percent in notifications of suicide attempts among children aged 10 to 14. Between the ages of 15 and 19, the increase was 192 percent.
What’s most upsetting about these statistics is that according to the World Health Organization (W.H.O.), the suicide rate has increased 7 percent in Brazil, contrary to the world index that has fallen 9.8 percent in the last seven years.
However, all hope is not lost. In one city in Brazil, a bold economic experiment is taking place. About 50,000 people in the small city of Maricá, 60 km. from Rio de Janeiro, will be receiving a basic income. The benefit, called the Renda Básica de Cidadania, is worth 130 reais (31 dollars) per person per month.
In the last few years, there have been basic income initiatives everywhere from Stockton, California, to Kenya and Finland. What makes this program in Brazil different is it’s the largest ever attempted.
Maricá’s mayor is from the Workers’ Party (PT), and the basic income program is funded out of the city budget from oil royalties. (Brazil is the world’s ninth largest oil producer and, with pre-salt oil discoveries, poised to be the fourth largest.)
This means the basic income program in Maricá has a stable funding stream and is not reliant on city taxes. Additionally, what is special about the program is it’s being initiated with a built-in system for analysis.
Researchers at the Jain Family Institute, a social and economic research organization based in New York, are working with Brazilian academics to evaluate the program’s effectiveness.
The most important aspect of the program is that it doesn’t distribute reais – it distributes “mumbuca,” a local currency issued by the Banco Mumbuca in Maricá, which can only be used in Maricá.
The concept is for the money to remain in Maricá. (The majority of the city’s residents who work in the formal economy work in Rio.)
Because all mumbuca transactions are made with a card and not cash, the transactions go through Banco Mumbuca. The bank then provides the researchers from Jain Institute with detailed data on exactly what and where the funds are being spent.
If Brazil intends to protect itself from the ravages of modern self-destruction, a guaranteed basic income is a positive start to protecting the physical and mental health of its most vulnerable citizens.
Going forward, Brazilians of every social class must find a way to save their children from isolation and hopelessness. Nothing can stop the invasion of technology; however, it is possible to alter the ways in which social media and consumerism enter our lives.
The future is happening now, but not all progress is beneficial. While none of us are ready to give up our modern tools, there’s a price to pay.
B. Michael Rubin is an American writer living in Brazil.