Marriages decline, divorces climb as families evolve into 21st centuryBy William Harms
The American family, which has undergone a major transformation in the past generation, is poised to change even more in the coming century.
Households continue to diverge from the traditional family-structure model of a stay-at-home mother, working father and children, according to a new report from the National Opinion Research Center.
Because of divorce, cohabitation and single parenthood, a majority of families rearing children in the next century probably will not include the childrens two biological parents, said Tom Smith, Director of the General Social Survey and author of The Emerging 21st-Century American Family. Moreover, most households will not include children.
NORC has studied these changing trends in American families since 1972, when it began interviewing Americans about family life for the General Social Survey. Researchers interviewed 2,832 randomly selected people age 18 and older for the most recent survey results.
One of the biggest changes in family life between 1972 and 1998 is in parental arrangements for children. In 1972, 73 percent of children lived with their biological parents, who were married. By 1998, 51.7 percent lived in such households.
The number of children living with single parents increased from 4.7 percent in 1972 to 18.2 percent in 1998, while the number of children living with two unmarried adults who were formerly married moved from 3.8 percent to 8.6 percent. Cohabitation arrangements and remarriages made up the rest of the group.
Marriage has declined as the central institution under which households are organized and children are raised, Smith said. People marry later and divorce and cohabitate more. A growing proportion of children has been born outside of marriage.
In looking at all households, Smith found that the most common arrangement in 1972 was married couples with children (45 percent), while in 1998, only 26 percent of households reflected this arrangement.
Rates of marriage also are shifting according to class; middle-class people are more likely to marry and remarry than working-class people, who are more likely to remain single or cohabitate, Smith said. In surveys taken from 1972 to 1977, 80 percent of working- and middle-class adults were married. From 1994 to 1998, 78 percent of middle-class adults were married, as opposed to 62 percent of working-class adults.
The number of households with unmarried people and no children increased from 16 percent in 1972 to 32 percent in 1998, becoming the most common living arrangement in the country.
Even within marriage, the changes have been profound as more and more women have entered the labor force and gender roles have become more homogenous between husbands and wives, said Smith.
A generation ago, a job outside the home was somewhat unusual for mothers, but that situation has now become the norm. In 1972, 33 percent of parents both held jobs, while in 1998, 67 percent were both employed. The percentage of households in which women worked while husbands stayed at home increased from 2 to 4 percent during the period.
Although many traditional values continue to influence peoples attitudes, these changes are having an impact on how Americans think about family life, Smith said.
As a result of womens roles in the workforce, parents expectations of their children have changed. In 1986, 23 percent of parents said obedience was the most important trait they expected from their children, a figure that dropped to 18.5 percent in 1998. In contrast, 11 percent of parents held the view that hard work was the most important trait in 1986, while in 1998, that figure rose to 18 percent. What this means is that parents are expecting their children to become more responsible, said Smith.
When the results of the American survey and those of 24 other advanced industrial countries are compared, demographers gain a hint at the direction in which the American family is going. Attitude scales, which measure what types of family arrangements people find most acceptable, show Americans are in the middle range of the continuum. But, said Smith, Americans attitudes toward non-traditional family arrangements will probably evolve toward more acceptance.
When asked their opinions on family life, Americans often held seemingly conflicting views. Compared to people in other nations, Americans are more optimistic that children and the family need not suffer if the mother is employed, Smith said. But, Americans also are less likely than those in other countries to see work as a boon for women and staying at home as a detriment.
While Americans take a dim view of childbirth outside marriage, they also do not see having children as the purpose of marriage. As members of most other Anglo cultures, Americans mainly see marriage as an institution for romantic love and companionship, Smith said.
Although there has been a huge increase in labor-force participation among women in the last 25 years, Americans are still less inclined than people in other countries to support government assistance to working parents. The survey found that 46 percent of Americans support child-care benefits for working parents, which places the United States at 19 among the 24 countries surveyed.
The General Social Survey is a major study of a broad cross-section of Americans that is conducted by NORC and receives support from the National Science Foundation.