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Family Life, Current Trends in Family Life

boomerang effect, Shared activities, perfect spouse, infant mortality rates, domestic care

In 1998 there were 2,256,000 marriages in the United States, a marriage rate of 8.4 per 1,000 people. This rate was down from 10.6 per 1,000 in 1980. The year 1998 also saw 1,135,000 divorces in the United States, a rate of 4.2 per thousand people. One estimate is that 50.3 percent of marriages will end in divorce. Divorce rates have been rising since 1920, when records were first kept and when the divorce rate was about a third of the 1995 rate. Although the divorce rate has been declining since it peaked in the early 1980s, America still has one of the highest divorce rates in the world. The majority of divorced people eventually remarry.

The economy at the end of the 20th century offered most workers less security and more competition, a situation that does not favor investment in marriage, particularly among the young. People, on average, are delaying marriage. The middle class peaked in the economic prosperity lasting from 1947 to 1973. Afterwards, the majority of Americans faced shrinking paychecks. Housing, utilities, and health care ate up 35 percent of the average family’s paycheck in 1984, compared to 38 percent in 2000. In 2000, 41 percent of people under age 35 owned their own homes, compared to 44 percent in 1980.

Increased educational requirements and job training, economic insecurity, difficulties finding the “perfect mate,” and the attractions of a carefree life are among the reasons for delaying marriage. In 2000, the average age at which Americans married was 26.8 for men and 25.1 for women, matching the marriage age for men and surpassing the marriage age for women in the 19th century. Virtually all people eventually marry—by age 65, about 95 percent of men and women are married. Americans delay marriage, seek divorces, and remarry because they expect marriage to be loving, supportive, and equitable. If a marriage is disappointing, they often seek the perfect partner in another relationship.

The strict gender roles that once confined men and women to certain activities are disappearing. Many women work and control their own wages, sources of credit, savings, and investments. Many men are enjoying closer relationships with their children as well as with their wives. The amount of time that men contribute to housework has been increasing for decades, although married women remain more heavily engaged in housework and child care.

Families are having fewer children than ever, but children are often staying home longer. The high cost of college education keeps many older children at home. Census takers at the end of the century have noticed what they call a boomerang effect, where adult children leave home but then later return. High rents and low entry-level wages, divorce, single parenthood, and their parents’ higher standard of living are among the factors encouraging adults to return home. Parents often welcome the companionship and assistance of their grown children.

Americans are responsive to the phrase “family values” because they appreciate the ties of kinship and the continuity of family tradition in a society that is rapidly changing and often isolating. Shared activities and shared memories are important in the late 20th century. The very architecture of new housing reflects the levels of family cooperation by enlarging the kitchen to accommodate the activities of husbands, wives, and children and by having the family room a part of, or nearby, the kitchen. The decoration of houses and apartments often makes the main room a shrine of family portraits and family souvenirs.

Women are having fewer children, yet many children are being born outside of marriage. In 2000 that amounted to 1,345,000 children. The number of children under 18 years of age living with two parents has decreased from 88 percent in 1960 to 68 percent in 1997, and child poverty rates have risen. By 2000, some 20 percent of children were living in poverty. In 1997, 24 percent of all children lived with their mothers only. This is substantially higher than the 8 percent who did in 1960, and reflects both the increases in single motherhood and the rising divorce rate. Because working women still earn substantially less than their male counterparts, and are less likely to be promoted, a rise in female-headed households means that more children are being raised in poverty. A minority of children lived with their fathers only, but again this rate has substantially increased. In 1960, 1 percent of children lived with their fathers only, 37 years later this quadrupled to 4 percent. Another 4 percent lived elsewhere, either with grandparents or other relatives. Large numbers of American children, 815,000, lived with nonrelatives in 1997, mostly in foster care. In 2000, 83 percent of children living with a single parent lived with their mothers and 17 percent with their fathers. While the majority of children live with two parents, that percentage has been shrinking.

Since the late 18th century, families have become more child centered. This trend peaked in the 1950s and 1960s. In the last decades of the 20th century, adults reported high levels of satisfaction with their family relationships, but children sometimes received too little attention and too little of a wealthy nation’s resources. There is evidence of anxiety, depression, and anger as some children are shuffled from place to place and from relationship to relationship, fought over in custody battles, and left on their own while their parents work. The problems that some children experience at home are brought to school and affect the quality of education. Social work and psychological counseling are now necessary adjuncts to schools from the preschool level through college. Violence is a problem in the schools as well as on the streets, and this level of violence is peculiar to the United States among industrialized countries.

The safety net for families and community support for parents and children have been rolled back at the end of the 20th century. The United States lags behind other developed nations in educational standards, social welfare programs, infant mortality rates, marriage rates, legitimacy rates, public safety, and other measures of family well-being. Crime, violence, drug abuse, and homelessness are problems that arise from these situations and also weaken existing families. Some of the problems with family life come not from a rejection of the family or from stresses on the family, but from the high and idealistic expectations that Americans place on their marriages, sexual relationships, and parent-child relationships. Many Americans hope for a perfect spouse and a perfect family and will experiment until they find satisfying lives for themselves. The cost may be tenuous relationships.

These tenuous family relationships are not entirely new. In the 17th and 18th centuries, families were similarly unstable, because of high death rates rather than divorce, and children were raised in as wide a variety of situations then as now. Marriages are more fragile, but some family relationships have strengthened over time. Mothers have assumed more responsibility for the economic as well as domestic care of their children. Some fathers are rearing their children. Grown men and women can often count on parental support, and grandparents step up to raise their grandchildren. Surveys show that the majority of adults are happy with the choices they have made and do not regret single parenthood or nonmarital unions. Many children reared by single parents, grandparents, foster parents, or adoptive parents thrive; others suffer from a lack of adult attention and supervision, from the instability of their home lives, and from feelings of rejection.

Although there is concern about these social changes, few would want to return to the days when women were expected to stay in abusive marriages or fathers were routinely denied custody of their children. The majority of Americans accept new attitudes on sexual expression, birth control, abortion, divorce, and child custody, although many personally view homosexuality as immoral, have mixed feelings about abortion, and want to make divorce more difficult to obtain. Both liberals and conservatives agree there are hopeful and troubling aspects of the American family at the end of the 20th century. The family is not dead, but it exhibits the plurality of interests, hopes, and troubles that the American people face at the end of the century.

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