(December 2000) If there is one “mantra” about family life in the last half century, it is that the family has undergone tremendous change. No other institution elicits as contentious debate as the American family. Many argue that family life has been seriously degraded by the movement away from marriage and traditional gender roles. Others view family life as amazingly diverse, resilient, and adaptive to new circumstances.
Any assessment of the general “health” of family life in the United States and the well-being of family members, especially children, requires a look at what we know about demographic and socioeconomic trends that affect families. The latter half of the 20th century was characterized by tumultuous change in the economy, in civil rights, and in sexual freedom, and by dramatic improvements in health and longevity. Marriage and family life felt the reverberations of these societal changes.
At the beginning of the 21st century, as we reassess where we have come from and where we are, one thing stands out. Our rhetoric about the dramatically changing family may be a step behind the reality. Recent trends suggest a quieting of changes in the family, or at least of the pace of change. There was little change in the proportion of two-parent or single-mother families during the 1990s. The living arrangements of children stabilized, as did the living arrangements of young adults and the elderly. The divorce rate had been in decline for more than two decades. The rapid growth in cohabitation among unmarried adults has also slowed.
Yet family life is still evolving. Age at first marriage rose as more young adults postponed marriage and children to complete college and settle into a labor market increasingly inhospitable to poorly educated workers. Accompanying this delay in marriage was the continued increase in births to unmarried women, though here, too, the pace of change slowed in the 1990s.
Within marriage or marriage-like relationships, the appropriate roles for each partner are shifting as American society accepts and values more equal roles for men and women. The widening role of fathers has become a major agent of change in the family. There are an increasing number of father-only families, a shift toward shared custody of children by fathers and mothers after divorce, and increased father involvement with children in two-parent families.
Whether the slowing, and in some cases cessation, of change in family living arrangements is a temporary lull or part of a new, more sustained equilibrium will only be revealed in the first decades of the 21st century. New norms may be emerging about the desirability of marriage, the optimal timing of children, and the involvement of fathers in childrearing and of mothers in breadwinning. Understanding the ever-evolving American family requires taking the pulse on contemporary family life from time to time. This Population Bulletin describes the American family in the latter half of the 20th century to better understand what changes in the family portend for the first half of the 21th century.
Suzanne M. Bianchi is professor of sociology and faculty associate in the Center on Population, Gender and Social Inequality at the University of Maryland, College Park.
Lynne M. Casper is health scientist administrator and demographer at the Demographic and Behavioral Sciences Branch, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.