This is the fifth in a series about 21st century families.
Q: What are additional ways 21st century families are changing?
A: Continuing with information from “the Changing American Family,” Andrew J. Cherlin, professor of public policy at Johns Hopkins University, stated that as late as the 1950s, unattached adults aroused the ire of the community. People believed if a person didn’t marry by a certain age, there had to be something wrong with that person. People suspected the person was mentally ill.
By the turn of the 20th century, the United States had the highest divorce rate in the Western World and has retained that rate until today. Cherlin pointed out the American paradox about marriage. Americans value marriage as “the center of civilized society.” At the same time, Americans value liberty, pursuing personal happiness, and the right to leave a bad marriage. As American families moved westward and distances between households increased, Americans grew accustomed to privacy and personal space not available to most people.
The passion to maintain privacy accelerated when the Industrial Revolution moved productive activity from the house into the factory. Then the house became a private sanctuary for the family. Americans were thrilled with the privatized family and family activities such as the family vacation, children’s birthday parties, Christmas rituals such as decorating the tree. The ultimate family holiday in America is Thanksgiving, signed into law by Abraham Lincoln.
Families became more and more nuclear. Industrialization and women entering into the work force changed the nature of marriage. Marriage changed from the practical merging of skill sets in the agricultural era to a relationship of choice based on friendship, personal compatibility and love. Social historian Stephanie Coontz stated the institution of marriage lost a lot of power over people’s lives, but marriage as a relationship became stronger and more influencial with couples. The most common middle-class family pattern is college, making money, marriage, making money and having children.
From the Context Institute in an article titled “The Changing American Family,” Arvonne Fraser, senior fellow at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota, reiterated changes that are redefining family life. These changes are longer life spans, increasing participation of woman in the labor force, safe and effective birth control, and a marked increase in divorce rates.
A definition of family includes the following norms. Families are a group of primary relationships that include emotional, social, biological, economic and legal aspects. Families are a set of individuals with varying needs and concerns who live in complex relationships with one another and with society.
Families are expected to provide theirs members with mutual social, economic, physical and emotional support. Families meet the needs for food, shelter and closeness or intimacy. Families pass along tradition and culture, and sometimes property, to the next generation. Since World War II, the characteristics and composition of families has changed.
The following statistics are from recent Census Bureau data.
• Only 9 percent of American households fit the old definition of working father, stay-at-home mother, biological children.
• A majority of families have no children younger than 18 years of age.
• More than 25 percent of families with children are single-parent families, and the majority are female.
• 72 percent of women of child-bearing years work.
• Out of wedlock births (most often by older women) are now approximately 20 percent of all births. These children are almost always kept by the mother rather than being put up for adoption.
• For the first time, U.S. generations are top heavy, having more grandparents than grandchildren. A key factor impacting these statistics has been the steady stream of women into the work force. This dramatic shift has happened within a single lifespan, too quickly for institutions and culture to keep up. There are a considerable number of older women in the U.S. who have been housewives for most or all of their lives. Women were raised to expect to find a spouse who would support them. That system worked out for most of that generation.
The daughters of that generation were most often employed before they married and until they had children. Once their children were in school, they returned to work. The percentage of women in the paid work force was 38.5 percent in 1965 for women ages 23 to 34. Twenty-one years later, that same group, then ages 45 to 55, had 66.3 percent in the paid work force. Despite this dramatic rise in working women, society maintained the fiction that women were caretakers and men were breadwinners.
A phenomenon not often addressed is that as women’s employment increased, men’s employment decreased. In the last decades of the 20th century, women’s employment increased by 30 percent up to age 55. Men’s employment has declined in every age group in 25 years. The trend is a profound shift in families and contradicts long-held cultural beliefs and assumptions.
Strong economic forces have forged these shifts in family economics. For the vast majority of younger families, income from one wage earner does not suffice to support the family, the children’s education and the couple’s retirement. Virtually all younger families, and some older families, assume the wife and mother must contribute economically to the family.
Unless there is a second wage earner, family income has decreased in the last decade of the 20th century. Low-income families with children, young families at all income levels, and poor single mothers were worse off. If family incomes increased, it was due to the number of people in the family who worked. Many families with children have two working parents to avoid having a decrease in family income.
• Next week’s discussion will continue with the topic of 21st century families.
Judy Caprez is professor emeritus at Fort Hays State University.