11 May 2010

The recent transformation of the American family: Witnessing and exploring social change

Professor Frank F. Furstenberg, Jr
Professor of Sociology and Research Associate, Population Studies Center, University of Pennsylvania

Abstract and audio of presentation

Edited transcript

The following audio presentation is brought to you by the Australian Institute of Family Studies as part of our monthly seminar series in which we showcase national and international research related to the family.

The seminars are designed to promote a forum for discussion and debate. They are open to the public and free of charge.

Seminar facilitated & speaker introduced by Dr Jennifer Baxter.

Professor Frank F. Furstenberg, Jr:

I'm told not to speak too loudly. I explained that I grew up in a family of six children and I learned to speak loudly and eat quickly. It's a pleasure to be here. I feel as though, for me, it's a returning home. I was at the Institute for a couple of weeks about 15 years ago when it was in its more modest incarnation, but it is lovely to be back and to be back in Australia again.

I hope that you will indulge me by allowing me to talk about the United States, but I really mean this talk to be a forum for discussing what's going on in Australia. The paper from which this talk is drawn is a sweeping paper that for those of you who have read it, it could be taken as a serious case of senioritis. You can read the definition that I constructed in the PowerPoint slide which I attribute to Webster's with apologies. This is a dangerous life stage that I'm in. I wrote this paper as a contribution to a retirement conference at the University of Pennsylvania just a year ago. Last summer they decided to put the papers together from that conference and asked me if I would write an overview of what's happened to the American family.

So there's a fair amount of self-reference in the paper and for that I apologise, but the idea here is to try to move toward some theory of how and why change occurs and where it occurs. Change is inevitable in family systems; family systems necessarily adapt to surrounding conditions. We've known that for a century. We often impose evaluations on those changes but I think our task as social scientists is first and foremost to understand the changes and to see them in the context that they're occurring.

There really isn't a general theory of social change. Partly that is because we look for uniformities, but we shouldn't really expect complete uniformities in the western family systems even though we see a great deal of similarity from Australia to the United States or to Britain or to continental Europe. The point here is that I really am working on a theory of social change that basically grows out of the work of C. Wright Mills, who discussed 40 years ago how personal issues are translated into public problems. Personal issues occur at a level when there's strain between what people can do and what their expectations are of how they should behave. If expectations of family roles are blocked, individuals invent new ways of fulfilling them. That is, they adapt and invent new solutions. Those solutions initially often appear deviant. Later, depending on how they come to be seen retrospectively, they're either deviant or innovative.

I'm going to talk about some of these novel solutions and why they've arisen and like social historians, who have made very similar points. If you look at the work of Lawrence Stone or Edward Shorter who looked at family change from the seventeenth century to the nineteenth century and into the end of the twentieth century, innovations in family behaviour arise because there are certain widespread frustrations that are felt privately and then get translated in a public way. As I say I'm going to come back to this point several times.

Toward the end of the paper or the talk, I go into a little bit of the current strains. Now crystal ball gazing is notoriously inaccurate. We family demographers and sociologists fail to foresee such things as the marriage rush and baby boom that I'm going to talk about. Our ability to imagine the future is very limited and I don't think I'm any better than anybody else in this regard, but I'm going to point to some strains that I think are going to play out in the next decade. How they play out I won't be able to say exactly.

The starting point for what has ironically now become the period of the traditional family since there are a few of you, like me, that grew up in this period and at the time people were lamenting the loss of the extended family. At mid-century, in the last century, the preoccupation of family sociologists was the decline of the extended family. This new family form was sometimes referred to as the conjugal family and sometimes called nuclear family that presumably arose in the post-war period.

It turns out that as we began to inspect historical data, we've learned otherwise. This ideal, particularly in the US, was the dominant ideal in the post-war period. Many believed that this nuclear family ideal had evolved and had progressed to something like a universal form. Indeed when we look at the data in the post-war period in the 1950s, 96 per cent of American women married and almost all of those women had children.

There was a family formation pattern that was quite widespread; it had never been quite as widespread as it was in the post-war period and it might never be again, certainly in the foreseeable future. This is why in the United States, many lament the loss of this ideal. We have a kind of nostalgic feeling that we can't rid ourselves of the idea that this family type was really a more perfect family form. Concealed in that family form was indeed a very different kind of structure and a set of tensions which I'm going to talk about in a moment, but that has been airbrushed and edited out of the picture.

So it certainly is the case that the nuclear family stood as a beacon of the future. When I was in graduate school, most sociologists believed that this family form was going to last for some period of time. My mentor and teacher, William J. Goode, was one of the great figures in the sociology of the family and who certainly inspired my work a great deal. But even Goode had a very limited picture of these strains and tensions that were going to play out in the late 1960s, '70s and '80s, the period that I'm going to talk about a good deal.

It was widely believed that the family was a functional institution that was well adapted to its current circumstances. The small family was adapted for geographical mobility, and hence well suited for the industrial economy.  At the same time that this theory was being put forth in the 1950s, in academic sociology in the US and elsewhere, several academic trends were beginning to undermine this view of the hegemony of the nuclear family.

One was certainly historical demography which was discovering—at the same time that people were saying the family had evolved successfully to meet new economic demands, other researchers were discovering that the changes were a much messier business than anybody believed. Indeed there had always been considerable variation and the extended family of the past was as in the words of Goode, "the classical family of western nostalgia," had really not existed.

Indeed my first academic paper looked at foreign visitors to the United States in the beginning of the nineteenth century, well before industrialisation took hold in the US, and basically the family was quite nuclear then and it was quite democratic and children had relatively speaking a lot of authority and spoke their minds that appalled a lot of foreign visitors. So in a certain way, as Shorter once wrote, the American family was born modern. But in fact there was a great deal of modernity in family systems elsewhere like Australia as well.

Feminist scholarship was also a powerful analytic tool to inspect the family anew and discover that some of these seeming bargains or adaptations that were in play were not nearly as comfortable as male sociologists portrayed them. There was considerable tension in the existing gender-based division of labour which many argued, such as Talcott Parsons, was in fact a wonderful invention for maximising the efficiency of the family and child rearing, the gender-based division of labour. Not so, said some of the earliest feminist scholars such as Betty Frieden.

In addition to historical demography and social history was the emerging field of life-course analysis, which following C. Wright Mills, was trying to link historical and economic change with internal changes in the family. It has been that orientation of examining families adapting to historical circumstances and historical circumstances impinging in different ways on the family depending on age and social location has been very much my orientation for the past four decades.

Let me talk a little bit about the so-called "de-institutionalisation of marriage"—I put that in quotes—it has become popular to phrase it that way. My good friend and long-time colleague, Andy Cherlin, has used the term to describe what's happened in the United States. I have some uneasiness with it and in part because I think we—not because marriage hasn't changed profoundly, of course it has—but when we speak of the institutionalisation the implication is that something good is coming apart and the family is inevitably devolving from its former state, to interpret change in the family as decline in the family. It is that notion that I resist whole-heartedly.

Sometimes things that are happening are not necessarily good in the sense of good for children or good for couples or good for the stability of the institution, but sometimes they, as I contend in this paper, represent innovative ways of dealing with the fact that existing forms simply are not working any more. So I had the very good fortune to start a study on marital change following a small cohort of about 400 teenage mothers from 1965. The study began in the middle '60s just as early childbearing was being an issue of attention in the black community particularly.

It was that study that made me look anew at marriage as we knew it then. I came to see that the time-honoured way of managing the link between sex and marriage was breaking down. Now we all know in retrospect that that has indeed happened and in some countries it happened with relative ease; it was managed well. In the United States we've never been able to manage and we still are caught in a kind of cultural deadlock of how to manage premarital sexual behaviour. It was for the young women in my study and their mothers who were interviewed in the mid-'60s and the young women were followed for four decades.

It was a real dilemma, an active dilemma, in the sense of marriage as a solution to a premarital pregnancy was beginning to seem not viable. Why was it not viable? Well, for two reasons. One was that the men who had impregnated these young women were really not marriageable. In varying degrees this had been true in previous times but it was less true. The other source of the change was that the mothers and the pregnant daughters were beginning to consider education as an alternative to early marriage. I would argue that in some ways these black teenage mothers represented just the kind of strain that was to change marriage in a broader way for many, many people; that early marriage was no longer a viable proposition. Early marriage was no longer a way of managing the risk of premarital pregnancy that came with sex. In about 1957, half of all marriages were preceded by a pregnancy. That meant that very, very early marriage frequently occurred in the US. Indeed some scholars argued that pregnancy was virtually part of the courtship system.

The so-called shotgun wedding—I don't know whether you have that expression here— was gradually becoming obsolete. First in the black community among young, but gradually this pattern was also abandoned by white teenagers in the late '70s. Then older white women gave up marrying simply because they were pregnant.

So I argue in this paper that the black family formation patterns were in some sense a harbinger of things to come. Among affluent families there was a different set of considerations that was making change in the family. In any case the new marriage patterns introduced cohabitation, a form that, believe it or not, only came into cultural existence in the 1970s. It was not that people didn't cohabit before then, but they did it invisibly and they did it as an act of deviance against the prevailing norm of wedlock.

In the early 1970s, the New York Times wrote an article on this very strange practice that they had identified, which they referred to as cohabitation. Some of the students at Columbia and Barnard Colleges in New York were actually living together before they got married. That was considered a breach of social standards and there was a great deal of controversy around that. Cohabitation was not discussed in the US literature until the early '70s and it certainly wasn't being measured. Social scientists were often one step behind the journalists in measuring these phenomena, so we really don't have a very good picture of people living together before the early '70s. We know it occurred. I can testify to that personally, but it wasn't culturally recognised.

The same pattern of cohabitation works very differently as a different solution for the poor and the near-poor than for the affluent. At the bottom of the economic distribution I've talked about the decline of the shotgun wedding and how cohabitation provides a hedge against the prospect that marriage is not viable. At the top, it provided a mechanism to allow for more education. In both instances, people engaged in cohabitation to avoid poor marital choices and the outcome of marital instability.

Many of the mothers of the teens in the Baltimore Study said that "there's no point in getting married to somebody who's not going to be able to provide support for you, you'll just end up like what happened to me". They instructed their daughters to do otherwise and to avoid marrying simply to give your child a name. Marriage was a risky proposition, like reaching for the brass ring, as I put it in one of my books.

At the top of the distribution there were some similar motives going on, but marriage became deferred in part because of contraception, because contraception allowed a different pattern and it allowed women to remain in school and to get education and to get settled in a way that women weren't as beholden to the practices of males. So in both social groups, for somewhat different reasons but really sharing a lot in common, cohabitation became an attractive mechanism for managing delay.

In the case of the well-educated, it allowed a much later marriage, a longer marital search and that has had the benefit of bringing down divorce rates. Among well educated people divorce rates have actually dropped—this is true in Australia I know as well—they've actually dropped. In the US they began to decline in the late '70s, in Australia it was a bit later. Class differences were actually widening during this period, as inequality was growing from the early '70s right up until the present and creating wide and ever wider differences in the life chances of children. This affected the way that families were formed by the affluent and less affluent.

This was happening in part because there was a perception of the need for growing investment in children that was vigorously adopted in affluent families. The idea that it was necessary and desirable to invest longer and later in children has become evermore widespread and also of course regardless of gender and I'll say a bit more about that in a moment. The high levels of investment in children that were part of the delayed family formation pattern of the affluent were not available to the less well-off families.

You'll see that efforts are being made in a moment when I show you a slide, that efforts are being made to invest more in children by everybody, but the high-income folks really have the resources to do it. I want to flag a few other patterns that I think are quite notable besides this investment in children idea that has taken hold and become, I think, very dominant in parenting. So dominant that I think it's beginning to become daunting to families and to young couples in a way that may begin to, in the US, constrain fertility. Increasingly young couples are aware of the fact that investment from parents is called for, for a very long time, well into the third decade of life and that's another significant change that's occurred in this post-war period, the delay of emancipation.

This particular form of investment I would argue is making—since we as a nation in contrast to Australia—we count on private investment at a much higher level than public investment, that the pressures that American families are experiencing in having and raising children have become quite acute. I'll say a little more about this later on.

I want to say a few things about changing notions of partner suitability and notions of love, as I do in the paper. Couples have learned that search behaviour is a good thing and that delay of marriage is a good thing for that reason and cohabitation has been, as I said earlier, a mechanism that's allowed the delay of marriage. But accompanying that is an interesting idea that may or may not be present in this culture: that is, changing notions of love.

When I was a young man people were expected to fall madly in love and then marry based on love, on this attraction; quite a contrast from the preceding century, love was glorified and it was considered the mechanism by which people chose their mates. A strange idea indeed but it was very, very prevalent. Now as we interview young adults in their early 20s, many of whom are partnered, we could find almost no talk of love, of being in love, of marrying for love. Not that love doesn't exist, but it had kind of gone behind the curtain, so to speak, as a primary reason for getting married.

Getting married is all about commitment and suitability and commitment is built up, it doesn't occur instantaneously. So I would argue that in some sense marriage is beginning to change. It is no longer a pledge of commitment but a celebration of commitment. It is a recognition that commitment has been made. This is of course the pattern of the well-educated, but I think in some ways it's also filtering down to the less educated, less well-off segments of the American population. Parenthood may precede marriage as it does in many cases in the US, more is required for marriage to occur than simply the  pledge of commitment.

Indeed I would argue that the marriage contract itself is changing and this I think is more at the top end of the economic strata that we no longer—in the 1950s there was a prevailing notion of the companionate marriage. The idea was that two people came together and became one. That was what marriage was, the formula being one plus one equals one. What's the formula today? I would argue that increasingly—and this is based on a lot of qualitative work that we've done in the US about the meaning of marriage—that it's increasingly one plus one equals three; you, me and us.

In contemporary marriages there's more space for you and I than was true in the marriages of the 1950s. That's partly because of the breakdown of the gender-based division of labour, but I think it's a cultural notion that is becoming widespread. One of the characteristics—and I alluded to the fact that we in the US and this is why Australia represents such an interesting contrast to the US or the Nordic countries of northern Europe generally—we really have a substantial reliance on individuals to make private investment. It is what Americans kind of believe or have been convinced is the right way to do things.

So families are becoming in the US an overburdened institution even among the high-income group which is frequently doing heavy-duty investment of children in their 20s and sometimes beyond. This overburdened aspect which comes with a prolongation of the transition to adulthood, represents a growing issue in the US.

The last point on the slide here that I don't want to omit and I discuss in the paper a bit is that sociologists of the family and demographers as well, have paid all too little attention to kinship—to the operation of the kinship system. We really are just beginning to learn how much is transferred into the family from let's call them generation one to the parents of children in generation two and directly to the children in generation three; how much we have come to rely on the elder generation. This is not just true in the US.

Martin Kohli, the social demographer, has been looking at intergenerational exchange and finds that parents—and this will come as perhaps a bit of painful awareness to some of you in the audience—that parents continue to give to their children until they're well into their seventies, so that there's a downward flow even in later life. I said I was going to show something about the investment patterns. I've been working with Sabino Kornrich, an economic sociologist, who's been analysing the consumer expenditure survey and this again lends itself to comparative research.

If you look at this graph and we can go back to the '70s, you look at what families are doing and there is in the most recent decade, the 1999, the top line on the graph, some clear evidence of some rise in investment, not huge, up until the sixth decile. That would get you just above the median income here in the US; that would be roughly people the sixth decile would take in families with children making about $75,000 or $80,000.

Then look at what happens in recent years in the upper deciles—the seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth—a huge widening out reflecting the incredible investment, mostly in education and preschool that is going on. Much of this is educational expenses in the US, but it is suggesting that children are really the long-standing pattern of unequal investment in children is growing and growing very rapidly in the past couple of decades.

I want to spend the last 10 minutes or so talking about some of these current tensions and as I said at the outset of the talk, I can't really forecast what's going to happen, but there's some very interesting patterns afoot.  I think one of the questions I have for you is whether you've seen the same thing. One of them—and I say it is just restricted to the US I think—but a big one that we're seeing, a big one, that relates to the marriage patterns in the low-income or the lack of marriage patterns in the low-income families is the erosion of males as contributors to the family.

There is some debate why this has come about. I think that it probably has to do with the fact that males are less than competent and highly motivated. They have been replaced by more competent and more motivated females. Some economists would argue that this is a crowding out process.  I don't think we know the answer to why this has occurred, but there's no question that we've seen, with growing gender equality, a high-level of achievement among women and a flagging level of achievement among men in educational attainment and job holding and job entrance.

I don't know whether this exists to the same degree in Australia as it does in the US. I know there's been some equalisation in higher education. In the US now women have, in educational attainment in the younger cohorts, clearly outstripped their male counterparts and reversed the pattern that was in play in this earlier family period that I've been discussing. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily if there is malleability in gender roles and of course we are seeing some increase in—what do we call them—full-time male caregivers, stay-at-home men.

We haven't invented an attractive job description for full-time male homemakers. I'm not sure we will, but housewife was never that attractive for many women, so househusband is going to be even less attractive. But how malleable will these gender roles be? How far will the culture stretch, because I don't think it's biological to any great degree?

In the Scandinavian countries they've really promoted this cultural stretch vigorously with public policy measures.  In the US and Canada it seems to be occurring, we have a growing number of men who are the primary caretakers of or caregivers for their children. We don't know how that's going to play out. Among lower income families the tensions can be very real and they're masked somewhat in higher income families because families can buy off a lot of the unattractive home responsibilities.

In the US I talk about the mismanagement of sexuality. We still have far and away the highest rate of teenage childbearing in the industrialised world. We manage not to be able to do what most countries have done, which is to treat this entrance to sexuality as something of a public health issue, which means preparation and some skills acquisition on the part of adolescents. Instead we consider adolescents to be highly irresponsible and incapable of managing this transition well and therefore it becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophecy in the US.

I've argued that we ought to treat sex education the way we treat driver education, as something that's an ordinary part of developing skills and understanding that it's necessary to take on responsible adult-like activities. I put higher education for all, but with a lot of question marks. How are we going to manage the kind of growing inequality that is being created by educational attainment and with it, often wealth acquisition?

In Australia you do a pretty good job of redistribution, a pretty good job. In the US, the idea of redistribution is really actively opposed and it's very hard to fight for a kind of family allowance, family distribution system, of benefits that you have in this country. I go back with a lot of envy understanding that things are not perfect here, but they're a hell of a lot better than in the US. The demands on parents are growing as I spoke about a few moments ago. They're growing in significant ways, partly by self-proclamation and cultural proclamation of the parents are ever more responsible for their children's behaviour.

Again I don't know whether this is as true in Australia, but the sense the 1960s, we have had a progressive development of parents taking on more and more responsibility for their children as part of this investment scheme and feeling ever more fearful about early autonomy on the part of the children. It's an extreme cultural reaction to the child rearing patterns of the '50s and '60s and early '70s where early autonomy was encouraged. We've seen in the US greater and greater supervision. I take one example in the paper but we have this strange institution of Halloween which has spread to other countries commercially if for no other reason, it's also fun for children.

Up until the early '70s the idea was to turn children out and let them go knock on strangers' doors and do what was called trick or treat. You weren't supposed to do the trick but it was occasionally done, but the treat was supposed to be there. Now parents take their children well into their pre-pubertal years around by hand and the idea of letting them knock on a stranger's door is considered a little bit frightening.

This is just one example what has become I think increasingly you could say—I don't want to characterise it in a negative way because I think these cultural swings as just that; they can swing back and forth. We don't know whether this is going to increase the grip of parents is going to become increasingly tight over time or whether it will loosen up in the next generation. I say technology to the rescue because technology allows a certain level of autonomy and still allows parents to tether their children virtually to themselves. So that may be the solution.

I alluded to this earlier of whether the family itself, of whether family formation and child—in the US we now have 20 per cent of women not having children. That's an extraordinarily high figure and it may continue to grow. I don't know what the exact figure is in Australia; I'm sure it's gone up, but it's a significant number of couples opting out of what has been taken for granted part of family formation. So I think this is going to become a tension. It is already in the US. I don't know whether that will play out in countries that have more generous support for families, but that might come up in the discussion that is about to occur.

So I hope this has been a little provocative and I'd now like to hear about Australia.

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