A joint family or undivided family is an extended family arrangement prevalent throughout the Indian subcontinent, particularly in India, consisting of many generations living in the same household, all bound by the common relationship

The idyllic Indian joint family gives a picture of a large sprawling farmhouse set on a huge property. Dozens of children are called in from playing games in the yard to take their place at the sprawling meal that happens everyday. Family members depend on one another, work with one another, and support one another through all events of life.

The “family” in this ideal scenario refers to all the male blood relatives, along with their mothers, wives, and children. Girl children stay in the family until they are married, and then go and live with the groom’s family.

Here are the hallmarks of the traditional joint family:

Common property – Everyone lives on the same piece of land that stays in the family for generations.

Common finances – All the money family members earn is pooled together and governed by the family.

Common kitchen – Eating together is one of the most important determiners of being a family. All the women help to prepare a large meal everyday. Indian sociologists have said, “The moment the kitchen is separated, the joint family ceases to exist.”

Common leader – The family is led by the oldest male relative, legally known as a karta but personally known as GrandfatherDadaji, or Thaatha. This person is the patriarch and seen as the last answer in terms of making purchases, going out, legal proceedings, etc. If anyone has a decision to make, he should be consulted. If he gives a ruling, it should be followed. He functions as the trustee of the property and the finances of the family. The patriarch’s wife heads the kitchen, child rearing, and most religious practices and festivals.

Common place of worship – On the family grounds, there will be a small temple or a place where the family god or kula devata is kept. Functions and festivals around the year will involve some kind of worship being done at this place.

Perhaps the biggest hallmark of a traditional joint family is the large number of people and children present. It would feel more like a clan or tribe than a family. Cousins grow up in such a close relationship with each other that they use the terms ‘cousin-brother’ or ‘cousin-sister’ to denote a closer relationship. Because children are looked after by all the female caretakers, some children may not realize who their biological mother is until much later in life.

Modern Indian Joint Family System

What was just described is mostly an India of the past. There are still a few families that will look similar to this, but they are hard to find and you are unlikely to encounter them if you only live in a city.

A recent study of the 2011 Census said that in Delhi, 69.5% of households have only one married couple, and less than 6% of all Indian households have 9 or more people living in them. Nuclear families (husband + wife + children) are strongly on the rise due to factors like job relocation, the burgeoning real estate market, and changes in cultural attitudes. It is most common to find nuclear families among New Indians.

While the traditional joint family is hard to find, you will likely encounter a modern version of it. This setup consists of some variation of a working couple, the husband’s parents, and the couple’s young children.

Of the hallmarks of a traditional joint family, a common kitchen and a common place of worship are still seen in these modern joint families. Families may eat out more often and not every meal will be at home, but nearly every morning you will find the grandmother making tea and parathas. The local temple on the farm is replaced by the puja closet in the high-rise apartment. Women will still do daily pujas and celebrate festivals in a special way.

Issues of property and finances are more separate in modern joint families. It is common for wealthier, older generations to either gift or sign over property to a young couple when they get married. Older children in their 20s and 30s may not be expected to contribute to the common financial pool if the family is well-off. As an elderly couple grows, they may become more dependent on their children’s finances rather than a common fund.

Leadership is also a more loose term. Grandparents still have a lot of authority and influence, but nothing like a karta relationship of the past. The working husband generally has a strong say in every matter, but all members will likely have an opinion that they expect to be heard.

Benefits of the Joint Family

Even if the thought of living with your in-laws forever makes your stomach turn, anyone can acknowledge these advantages:

1.) Joint family situations are economically beneficial. When you live in a home that has belonged to your family for a long time, you don’t need to worry about things like rent and a mortgage. Money can go a lot farther when it is pooled together and everyone is contributing. Joint families take advantage of the stages of life philosophy (more on this later) and rely more on working men and women to fund the family so that the children can learn and the grandparents can enjoy their time.

2.) Joint families have built-in childcare. Many children in India are raised primarily by their grandparents for a significant amount of their life. If both parents need to work, no problem. If Mom and Dad want to catch a movie, someone is around. If Grandma and Grandpa aren’t around, there is some auntie nearby who is available. Any young parents living on their own can testify to what an advantage this would be.

3.) Joint families build stronger circles. Joint families provide the opportunity for built-in playmates for kids. Having a large number of “brothers” and “sisters” means having a larger and more solid circle you can count on later in life. Most Indians who grew up in these settings are still very close with their cousins and keep in touch regularly. I have heard multiple times that this is one of the main regrets of Indians who live away from their families in a nuclear family setup. They are sad that their children will not be as close with the rest of their family as they are.

4.) Someone is always home. You will never realize how much of an advantage this is until you are stuck at your home waiting for the electrician to come because he said he would be there at 10am and it is already 2pm. It can be assumed in Indian families that someone will be home to answer the door for the dozen people who stop by weekly to perform a service or make a request.

Of course, you can imagine that joint families are not all slumber parties and movie nights. Living in a joint family also means that your business is everybody’s business.  There are rarely any secrets, and you can forget about having a room to yourself. Everywhere you go, there are people coming in and out. It is very difficult to change something like your eating habits or discipline style when grandparents are nearby and insist their way of raising kids was fine.

If you find yourself married into a joint family, this article has some good tips for doing it well. As others have pointed out, one system is not superior to another, and it is best to choose the one that fits your family best and make it work.

Global Trends

While India moves from a traditional joint family to a more modern one, families in the west are moving from strict individualism to embracing the “multigenerational household”.

The Pew Research Center said that more than 50 million (or one in six Americans) live in a household with at least two adult generations (either adult children living with parents, or elderly parents moving in with children).  This is also seen in a 10.5 percent increase in multigenerational households.  The AARP reports that 32% of adult American children expect to eventually share a home with a parent. A recent study from Pew Social Trends says that 36% of Americans aged 18-31 live with their parents.

A 2010 study shows that 32% of European men aged up to 34 lived with parents.

While recent economic conditions and immigration have been very influential, among those living together, many of them say that the experience has brought them closer together as a family while also helping them financially.  Popular television shows like Duck Dynasty that feature a regular family meal with 4 or 5 family units together also add credit to the extended family system.

How it affects you in India

If you are in India and interacting with joint families in India, here are some ways you can learn more and be respectful:

  • Ask, “Who is at home with you?” This opens up the conversation to know what kind of family setup they have.
  • Be encouraging of colleagues and friends who are supporting and caring for parents.
  • Don’t worry if you forget someone’s name. There is a good chance that everyone else in the family forgot “Uncle’s” real name 10 years ago.
  • Say goodbye to everyone when you leave and don’t be surprised if they all come outside to wish you off!