The American Family: Where We Are Today

U.S. Society and Values, U.S. Department of State electronic journal, Vol. 6, January 2001
By Stephanie Coontz

Modern life can be stressful -- in the family as anywhere else in our fast-paced society. And yet, with all the challenges and concerns about relationships, marriage and raising children, people in the United States today have higher expectations of parenting and marriage. In comparing the present with the past -- the so-called "good old days" -- we need to realize that many of our worries reflect how much better we want to be, not how much better we used used to be.

Let's consider pieces of evidence.

Fathers in intact families are spending more time with their children than at any point in the past 100 years. Although the number of hours the average woman spends at home with her children has declined since the early 1900s, as more and more women enter the workforce, there has been a decrease in the number of children per family and an increase in individual attention to each child. As a result, mothers today in the United States -- including those who work part- or full-time -- spend almost twice as much time with each child as mothers did in the 1920s. People who raised children in the 1940s and 1950s typically report that their own adult children and grandchildren communicate far better with their kids and spend more time helping with homework than they did.

America's children are also safer today than they've ever been. An infant was four times more likely to die in the 1950s than today. A parent then was three times more likely than a modern one to preside at the funeral of a child under the age of 15, and 27 percent more likely to lose an older teen to death.

If we look back over the last millennium, we can see that families have always been diverse and in flux. In each period, families have solved one set of problems only to face a new array of challenges. What works for a family in one economic and cultural setting doesn't work for a family in another. What's helpful at one stage of a family's life may be destructive at the next stage. If there is one lesson to be drawn from the last millennium of family history, it's that families always have to play "catch-up" with a changing world.

Take the issue of working mothers. Families in which mothers spend as much time earning a living as they do raising children are nothing new. They were the norm throughout most of the last two millennia. In the 19th century, married women in the United States began a withdrawal from the workforce, but for most families this was made possible only by sending their children out to work instead. When child labor was abolished, married women began re-entering the workforce in ever larger numbers.

For a few decades, the decline in child labor was greater than the growth of women's employment. And so the male-breadwinner family surfaced. In the 1920s, for the first time, a bare majority of U.S. children grew up in families in which the husband provided all the income, the wife stayed home full-time, and they and their siblings went to school instead of to work. This pattern continued for decades. During the 1950s, almost two-thirds of the nation's children grew up in such families, an all-time high. Yet that same decade saw an acceleration of workforce participation by wives and mothers that soon made the dual-earner family the norm -- a trend not likely to be reversed in this new century.

What's new is not that women make half their families' living, but that for the first time they have substantial control over their own income, along with the social freedom to determine the shape of their own lives. Also new is the declining proportion of their lives that people devote to raising children, both because they have fewer kids and because they are living longer. Until about 1940, the typical marriage ended with the death of one partner within a few years after the last child left home. Today, couples can look forward to spending more than two decades together after the children leave.

The growing length of time partners spend with only each other for company, in some instances, has made individuals less willing to put up with an unhappy marriage, while women's economic independence makes it less essential for them to do so. Thus, on the one hand, there has been a steady rise in the U.S. divorce rate since 1900. But on the other, expanded life expectancies mean that more couples are reaching their 40th and 50th anniversaries than ever before.

Women's new options are good not just for themselves but for their children as well. Studies have shown that kids do better in their own right when their mothers are happy with their lives, whether that satisfaction comes from being a full-time homemaker or from full-time employment. And largely because of women's new roles at work, men are assuming more of a role at home.

Although most men still do less housework than their wives, that gap has been halved since the 1960s. Today, 49 percent of couples say they share child care equally, compared with 25 percent in 1985. Men's greater involvement at home is good for their relationships with their spouses, and also good for their children. Hands-on fathers make better parents than men who let their wives do all the nurturing and child care. They raise sons who are more expressive and daughters who are more likely to do well in school -- especially in math and science.

In 1900, life expectancy in the United States was 47 years, and only four percent of the population was 65 or older. Today, life expectancy is 76 years, and by 2025, it is estimated, about 20 percent of the U.S. population will be 65 or older. For the first time, a generation of adults must plan for the needs of both their parents and their children. Most Americans are responding with remarkable grace. One in four households gives the equivalent of a full day a week or more in unpaid care to an aging relative, and more than half say they expect to do so in the next 10 years. Older people are less likely to be impoverished or incapacitated by illness than in the past, and have more opportunity to develop a relationship with their grandchildren.

Even some of the choices that worry people the most are turning out to be manageable. Divorce rates are likely to remain high, and in many cases marital breakdown causes serious problems for both adults and kids. Yet when parents minimize conflict, family bonds can be maintained. And many families are doing this. More non-custodial parents are staying in touch with their children. Child-support receipts are rising. A lower proportion of children from divorced families are exhibiting problems than in earlier decades. And stepfamilies are learning to maximize children's access to supportive adults rather than cutting them off from one side of the family.

As we begin to understand the range of sizes, shapes and colors that distinguish families in the United States today, we find that the differences within family types are more important than the differences between them. No particular family form guarantees success, and no particular form is doomed to fail. How a family functions on the inside is more important than how it looks from the outside.

The biggest problem facing most families in the United States at the outset of the new century is not that our families have changed too much but that our institutions have changed too little. Work policies reflect an earlier era, when most mothers weren't in the workforce and most fathers weren't involved in the joys of child care. School schedules often seem designed for decades ago, when children needed to be home to help with chores or to be employed themselves.

Still, while social institutions still have work to do, America's families, for the most part, are entering the new millennium with far more resources, hopes and equal regard for all family members than ever before.

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