P. O’Crowley. (1990, March 25). “New Ties that Bind.” Hackensack, NJ: Record.
“Family,” Robert Frost says, “is where you go at night and they have to let you in.” Yet, the family structure is evolving as a result of tremendous social, political, and economic changes as we near the end of the 20th century. “If America were to throw itself a family reunion,” says Peggy O’Crowley, “the guest list would be as varied as the melting pot itself.”
During the past 25 years, monumental shifts have taken place in the American family: the rise of “alternative forms of families” is the greatest marker. Some consider this to be a “celebration of our diversity”; others, like the conservative Family Research Council, fear this to be a “decade of doom” for the family. More likely, the truth lies somewhere between.
Certainly, though, in this era in which the baby-boomers have come into power, the prevalent image of the family is the one in which they grew up: breadwinner dad, stay-at-home mom, and 2-point-something kids-in short, the Nelsons and the Cleavers. However, if it was ever true-to-life, that nuclear version of the family seems to be no more than an anomaly now. U.S. Census (1988) figures show that only 5% of married couples fit that profile.
More than one fourth of all American households do not fit the definition of a family offered by the U.S. Census Bureau. Three quarters of the respondents to a Massachusetts Mutual survey “rejected the Census Bureau’s definition of family in favor of ‘a group who loves and cares for each other.’ ” Recent legislation, notably in New York State, has accommodated that larger definition, and the U.S. Census Bureau has included a category for unmarried partners in the 1990 survey.
Numerous influences have gone into forming this “post-nuclear” family, perhaps none more notably than the women’s movement and the return of millions of women to the workforce. Such a trend revives many words in the American vocabulary, like “day care,” “stay-at-home dads,” and the ever-elusive quest: “quality time.”
For many families, two incomes are a necessity. In the past 15 years, real wages have declined while housing costs and the cost of raising children have skyrocketed. Families are forced to make ends meet.
The “dark side of modern life” is the increased pressure on families. Many experts point to the divorce rate as an indicator of the crumbling of traditional family values. More and more children are being raised by only one parent (generally mom). This hurts children socially, psychologically, and economically. “A ten year Harvard study on the economic consequences of divorce found that women and children’s standard of living fell by 73 percent after the family breakup, while the men’s standard increased by 42 percent.”
Given the state of the family and social trends, the solution is probably neither to resurrect the Cleavers nor to throw away the family unit (“the cornerstone of society”) in search of some alternative. O’Crowley calls for societal institutions, primarily government and business, to step into the arena of private life through legislation, child care, and parental leave. Next, she calls for Americans to “develop a new awareness of the family’s importance in society.”
In conclusion, O’Crowley suggests that trends show a pendulum swing: a Seventeen survey presents “an overwhelming majority” of American teenagers desiring marriage and family, and even among the baby boomers, terms such as “parenting” have become part of the vernacular. “Whatever form the family of the future takes, it will remain one of the most important American institutions.”
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- What takes the place of family for kids who have no real “family” at their house?
- Given the flattening of the trends (divorce rate leveling off, birth rate stabilizing, more kids desiring marriage and family, etc.), what is the family of the early 21st century likely to look like?
- What are the things that a child misses by not growing up in a “traditional” home? How do we (or do we?) compensate for those in youth work?
- It is important to remember that many kids do not have a father, nor have they ever known anyone who has, or is, a father.
- Since many of the adolescents with whom we work will have no idea how a family is supposed to function, we need to be prepared to provide some missed “parenting” for teenagers.
- As young people grow into young adults and prepare for marriage, over half of them will not come from families in which marriage is understood to be a lifetime commitment. Premarital and marriage counseling must be aware of that dynamic.
Emily J. Anderson
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