Editorial: Domestic Arrangements; American Families Continue to Change
Whatever your notion of the typical American family, it’s wrong. That’s because there isn’t a typical American family anymore, if there ever was. Seismic demographic shifts, as well as rapidly evolving values and customs, have shoved aside the vaunted stereotype for variations on the theme of Mom, Dad and their biological children.
As Natalie Angier of The New York Times reported last week in stories about the changing face of the American family, there is more racial, ethnic, religious, socioeconomic and sexual diversity in domestic arrangements than anyone might have imagined a few decades ago. “This churning, this turnover in our intimate partnerships, is creating complex families on a scale we’ve not seen before,” Andrew J. Cherlin, a professor of public policy at Johns Hopkins University, told Angier. “It’s a mistake to think this is the endpoint of enormous change. We are still very much in the midst of it.”
For the Baby Boom generation and perhaps even for Generation X born after 1964, the alterations in the American family are strikingly obvious. Domestic partnerships, cohabitation, stepfamilies, blended families, single-parent households and gay households are far more common today than when Father Knows Best was popular on television.
Families look different from the way they did 50 years ago largely because attitudes toward marriage, motherhood and women’s roles have evolved so dramatically. Proportionally fewer women become mothers, and the birthrate has dropped by half since 1960, from 120 live births per 1,000 women of childbearing age to 63 per 1,000 in 2011. People of a certain age well remember families of five, six and more children. That’s a rarity today, in part because of birth control, but also because raising a child is an expensive proposition, costing $231,000, on average, between birth and age 18.
Those who do choose to bear children don’t necessarily wait to get married first, and marriage rates have fallen more steeply than birthrates. The decoupling of marriage and maternity is one of the most remarkable social transformations of the past several decades. Forty-one percent of babies are born out of wedlock, a fourfold increase since the 1970s; among women with a high school degree or less, 57 percent are unmarried when they give birth to their first child. Contrary to assumptions, most unmarried mothers are in their 20s and 30s, not in their teens.
The institution of marriage has taken a beating, but it survives, even thrives among educated people of the middle- and upper-middle classes. People are marrying later than they used to — typically at age 29 for men and 26 for women. And the rate of divorce has actually dropped since 1996, from 50 percent to 40 percent. Even so, the instability of marriage has contributed to complex family arrangements, as spouses split and later form new partnerships and blended households. Many adults will experience a variety of family configurations in their lifetimes.
Meanwhile, the bitter culture war fought over working mothers and “family values” is a battle lost and won: Most mothers are employed outside the home, and 40 percent of women with dependent children are the primary breadwinners, up from 11 percent in 1960. At the same time, American culture remains unique in its obsessive attention to the needs of children, Angier noted.
Tradition-bound Americans may bemoan some of the trends. But “family” is an enduring social unit, and it endures precisely because it evolves and adapts. To a large extent, the ways in which the American family is evolving reflect defining characteristics of America itself — the dynamism of the melting pot, individualism and a firm belief in the pursuit of happiness.