Digital History>Topics>Private Life

Contemporary Families

Digital History TOPIC ID 80

Since the 1960s, families have grown smaller, less stable, and more diverse. At the same time, more adults live outside a family, as single young adults, divorced singles, or as older people who have lost a spouse. As recently as 1960, seventy percent of the households in the United States consisted of a breadwinner father, a homemaker mother, and two or more kids. Today, the male breadwinner, female homemaker family makes up only a small proportion of American households. More common are two-earner families, where both the husband and wife work; single-parent families, usually headed by a mother; reconstituted families, formed after a divorce; and empty-nest families, created after a children have left home. Declining birth and marriage rates, the rapid entry of married women into the work force, a rising divorce rate, and an aging population all contributed to this domestic revolution.

Despite the changes that have taken place, the family is not a dying institution. About ninety percent of Americans marry and bear children, and most Americans who divorce eventually remarry. In many respects, family life is actually stronger today than it was in the past. While divorce rates are higher than in the past, fewer families suffer from the death of a parent or a child. Infants were four times more likely to die in the 1950s than today and older children were three times more likely. Because of declining death rates, couples are more likely to grow into old age together than in the past and children are more likely to have living grandparents. Meanwhile, parents are making greater emotional and economic investment their children. Lower birth rates mean that parents can devote more attention and greater financial resources to each child. Fathers have become more actively involved in their childrearing.

Nevertheless, the profound changes - such as the integration of married women into the paid labor force - have taken place in the late twentieth century resulted in a ‘crisis of caregiving.’ As the proportion of single parent and two-worker families has increased, many parents have found it increasingly difficult to balance the demands of work and family life. Working parents not only had to care for their young children, but, because of increasing life spans, aging parents as well. In an attempt to deal with these needs, the United States adopted the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act, entitling eligible employees to take up to twelve weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave in a twelve-month period for specified family and medical reasons. Yet despite widespread rhetoric about promoting family values, many ‘reforms,’ such as welfare reform, weakened social supports for families. Whether the early twenty-first century will witness a wave of family-related reforms comparable to the Progressive Era remains to be seen.

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