A ‘quieting’ of family change



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Casper, Lynne M., and Suzanne M. Bianchi. (2005) [2002]. “A ‘quieting’ of family change.” In Andrew J. Cherlin (ed.), Public and private families: A reader, fourth edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 5-13. [Originally titled as, “Changing families in a changing society’ from Continuity and Change in the American Family by Lynne M. Casper and Suzanne M. Bianchi (2002), Sage Publications.]
Family life in the United States underwent tremendous change in the latter half of the 20th century. No institution elicits more contentious debate than “the American family.” On one side are those who argue that “the family” has been seriously degraded by the movement away from marriage and traditional gender roles. On the other side are those who view family life as amazingly diverse, resilient, and adaptive to new circumstances. In the United States the latter half of the 20th century was characterized by tumultuous changes in the economy, in civil rights, in sexual freedom, and in health and longevity.
Recent trends (between 1995 and 2000) suggest a “quieting” of family change, or at least the pace of change:

* no change in the proportion of families that were maintained by married couples or single mothers

* household living arrangements of children, young adults, and the elderly stabilized

* divorce rate had been stable or declining for over two decades

* newer forms of coupling, such as cohabitation, showed signs of a decreased rate of increase

* ratio of premarital births to marital births ceased increasing

* fertility levels remained constant
Major area of continued change involved fathers and families:

* number of father-only families increased

* shift toward shared custody by fathers and mothers after divorce

* father involvement with children in 2-parent families increased


We won’t know whether these trends are a temporary lull or part of a new, more sustained equilibrium until the first decades of the 21st century.
Family change continues in the following:

* age at marriage continues to climb, as more young adults in their 20s experiment with other living arrangements

* cohabitation continues to rise

* the number of grandparents raising grandchildren grew in the 1990s


The interpretation of these trends is not always straightforward. For example, an increasing age at marriage may signal that young people are delaying marriage until they are older, or it may indicate that they are forgoing marriage altogether.
This quieting of change certainly does not signal a reversal of trends back toward what they were in the l950s:

* a large proportion of families are still maintained by single mothers

* cohabitation is very common

* the proportion of births to unmarried women remains high


The pace and extent of family change have not been uniform among all racial and ethnic groups.

* the numbers of single-mother families began to increase much earlier among blacks than among whites

* today many more black families are mother-only families

* marriage is more common among whites and Hispanics than among blacks


While many trends are discussed in the aggregate, it is important to remember that the societal changes outlined may have differential effects on families of different racial groups whose position in the overall class structure of U.S. society varies.
Enormous social and economic changes radically altered life for Americans during the second half of the 20th century, in part because conditions were so unique at midcentury.
Consider the life of a young woman reaching adulthood in the 1950s or early 1960s. Such a woman was likely to marry straight out of high school or might take a job as a secretary or retail salesclerk until she married. She would then move out of her parents’ home to form a new household with her husband. This young woman was likely to he married by the age of 20, to give birth to her first child shortly thereafter, and to bear at least two more children. More likely than not, she would quit her job and stay at home to care for her children while her husband went to work at a steady job that paid enough to support the entire family.
Fast forward to the last few years of the 20th century. A young woman reaching adulthood in the late 1990s is not likely to marry before her 25th birthday. She will probably attend college and is likely to live by herself, with a boyfriend, or with roommates before marrying. She might move in and out of her parents’ house several times before getting married. Like her counterpart reaching adulthood in the 1950s, she is likely to marry eventually and have at least one child, but the sequence of those events may be reversed. She probably will not drop out of the labor force after she has children, although she might curtail the number of hours she works outside the home in order to try to balance work and family. She is also much more likely to experience a divorce and possibly even a remarriage compared with a young woman in the 1950s or 1960s.
Many of the changes in women’s (and men’s) timing of marriage, children, and paid work reflect changed economic circumstances between the 1950s and the 1990s. After World War II, the United States experienced an economic boom characterized by rapid growth and expansion of the economy, full employment, rising productivity, higher wages, low rates of inflation, and increasing earnings. This meant that a man with a high school education in the 1950s and 1960s could secure a good-paying job that would allow him to purchase a house, support a family, and join the swelling ranks of the middle class.
The 1970s and 1980s were quite different. The two decades following the oil crisis in 1973 were decades of economic change and uncertainty marked by a shift away from manufacturing and toward services; stagnating or declining wages, especially for less educated workers; high inflation; and a slowdown in productivity growth.
The 1990s were just as remarkable for an economic turnaround: sustained prosperity; low unemployment, albeit with increased inequality in wages; and economic growth that seemed to reach even the poorest segments of society.
When the economy is on such a roller coaster, family life often takes a similar ride.
For those with only high school education today, good jobs with high pay and benefits are in relatively short supply, and those lucky enough to land such jobs will receive pay that is about 25 percent less than comparable jobs would have paid just 20 years ago. Young men and women are therefore more likely to remain in school to pursue college degrees. Both men and women experience extended years of independence, or quasi-independence, because they remain single longer, leave home in pursuit of a college education, cohabit with partners, and take time to launch careers before taking on the responsibility of having families of their own.
One of the most spectacular changes that is occurring today is the transformation of gender roles within the family. Women’s increased participation in the labor force, the postponement of marriage, and the increase in single-parent families challenges the “separate spheres” organization of home life that dominated the post — World War II period.
Children are also affected by mothers’ increased participation in the labor force and by the changing marital behavior of parents. More children are in day care than ever before, and the time they spend with their mothers and fathers has also changed.
In 1950, there was a dominant and socially acceptable way for adults to live their lives, a well-understood road map for successful family life. Parents married for life and bore and raised children within marriage. The “ideal” family was composed of a homemaker-wife, a breadwinner-father, and two or more children. Americans shared a common image of what a family should look like and how mothers, fathers, and children should behave, and these shared values reinforced the importance of the family and the institution of marriage. This vision of family life turned out to have amazing staying power, even as the underpinnings that allowed it to exist eroded.
For this “ideal” family to exist, Americans had to support distinct gender roles and the economy had to be vibrant enough for a man to be able to support a family on one wage earner’s income. Government policies and business practices reserved the best jobs for men and blatantly discriminated against women when they married or had babies. After 1960, with the gaining strength of the civil rights movement and the renewed women’s rights movement, women and minorities gained legal protections in the workplace, and discriminatory practices began to erode.
Bolstered by the revolution in contraceptive technology and other means of controlling fertility, a transformation in attitudes toward family behaviors also occurred.
The movement of women into the labor force was accompanied by changing attitudes and values regarding work and family roles. People became more accepting of women’s labor force participation, particularly among mothers. The views that women should not work if their husbands are capable of supporting them and that preschool children suffer when their mothers work outside of the home were replaced by more gender-egalitarian views of women’s roles and much less concern about negative outcomes for children of working mothers. People became more accepting of divorce, cohabitation, and sex outside of marriage and less sure about the universality and permanence of marriage.
Increasingly, American values shifted from those favoring family commitment and self-sacrifice to those favoring self-fulfillment, individual growth, and personal freedom. People began to expect more out of marriage and to leave bad marriages if their expectations were not fulfilled. Although changes in norms and values may have followed rather than preceded increases in divorce and delays in marriage, cultural change has important feedback effects once it begins.
Another important change, one sometimes overlooked, was also altering family life: the “graying” of America. In 1900, average life expectancy in the United States was about age 50 at birth.
Tremendous advances were made in the early decades of the 20th century in the control of communicable diseases of childhood, so that by 1960 life expectancy at birth had increased to 70 years. After 1960, reduction in mortality was concentrated in areas that enhance life expectancy at older ages. During the 1970s and 1980s, rapid declines in mortality from heart disease — the leading cause of death — significantly lengthened the life span. In addition, the introduction of Medicare encouraged greater use of preventive health care services among older Americans. The development of new drugs to treat hypertension and other illnesses and the trend toward healthier life-styles also contributed to increased longevity. The reduction in mortality meant that a person born in 1998 could expect to live to be 77, and an individual who reached age 65, especially if female, could often expect an additional 20 years of life.
Throughout the 20th century, women outlived men.…Increased life expectancy translates into extended length of family relationships. Married couples today have many more years to spend together, assuming they remain married. In fact, the increased expectation of life may be implicated in the high incidence of divorce; sustaining one lifetime relationship, “till death do us part,” may be more difficult as death comes at older ages. Family members today also have many more years together as adults…
Longer lives also mean that people spend smaller portions of their lives parenting young children.…More parents live long enough to he part of their grandchildren’s and even their great-grandchildren’s lives. In sum, an aging society alters the context for family relationships and intergenerational ties. Lengthening expectation of life combines with shifts in the economy and changing norms, values, and laws to influence life-course trajectories of individuals. When aggregated to the societal level, modifications in individual decisions are manifested in changes in household and family composition.
Five key demographic trends are relevant to an understanding of family change:
1. The delay in forming marriages, increasing the time adults spend outside marriage, often living in their parents’ homes, with friends, or with unmarried partners
2. The increase in heterosexual cohabitation, either as a precursor or alternative to marriage or as an alternative to living alone, combined with the growing acknowledgment of same-sex cohabitation and concerns of gay and lesbian families
3. The growth in single parenting due to widespread divorce (and, more recently, a growing tendency for births to occur outside marriage as marriages are postponed) and the increasing number of years adults and children spend outside of married-couple families
4. The steady increase in women’s labor force participation, especially among married women, in the second half of the 20th century and the accompanying decline in the one-wage-earner, two-parent family (what some refer to as the “traditional” family)
5. Delayed and declining fertility and declining mortality resulting in fewer children, smaller families, and also a lengthening of life, adding to the time adults spend “postchildren,” which has fueled the growth in married couples without children and elderly who increasingly live independently, apart from their children or extended kin
According to Census Bureau definitions, households are separated into family and nonfamily designations. Family households include members who are related by blood, marriage, or adoption; nonfamily households include those who live alone or with nonrelatives.
In 1960, 85% and in 1998, 69% of households included families.
In 1960, 44% and in 1998, 25% of total households were married-couple households with children.
In 1960, 49% and in 1998, 34% of total households were likely to include children under 18.
In 1960, 13% and in 1998, 26% of households with one person

doubled.
In 1960, 23% and in 1998, 10% of households had five or more people.


In 1960, 41% and in 1998, 58% of households had only one or two people.
Between 1960 and 1998 the average number of people per household declined from 3.3 to 2.6, as did the average number of children under age 18 per family household.


In 1960, 91% and in 1998, 73% of family households had two-parents with children under age 18.
In 1978, 31% and in 1998, 16% of households had two-parents, children under age 18, with only the father employed.
Change in household composition in the United States began slowly in the 1960s, just as the nation was embarking on some of the most radical social changes in its history. The steepest decline in family households was experienced in the 1970s, as the Baby Boomers reached adulthood and aged through their 20s. By the 1980s, change was still occurring, but at a much less rapid pace. By the mid-1990s, household composition reached relative equilibrium, where it has been since.
Many regard the decline in the proportion of households made up of two-parent families with children as a sign of family disintegration. Or is it just that two-parent family living is occupying a smaller portion of our adult lives, especially as life expectancy increases and families average no more than two children? The vast majority of American adults could spend time parenting children in two-parent families and this household type could still decline as a percentage of U.S. households or families. Increased life expectancy and the delay in marriage until older ages mean that a growing share of households include individuals who either have not yet begun or have already finished rearing children.
Figure 1.1; Figure 1.2; Table 1.1; Figure 1.3


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