Families, Fathers, and Demographic Change

(October 2006) Two important demographic trends have reshaped the typical person’s life dramatically over the past century: Increasing longevity and the shrinking number of children per family. Husbands and wives, as well as fathers, mothers, and children, now spend more years in each other’s company, creating opportunities as well as challenges.

This change has profound implications for relationships between parents and their adult children, as well as between men and women. Because parents live longer and children are more likely to survive into adulthood, they now spend most of their years together when both generations are adults.

These trends are changing the ways these groups relate to each other—in ways that made sense when few parents lived long enough for their children to become adults and when husbands and wives had few years when they were not actively caring for children. The greatest impact of this may well be on fathers.

The twin demographic changes mean that far fewer people lose their parents during childhood, which serves to prolong intergenerational relationships during adulthood. Many people express concern that increased survivorship means more years of caring for elderly parents, though most elderly parents are in good health and most of their “new” years are healthy ones. And though women could spend their “extra” years caring for more children, they have been having fewer children than in the past.

The table below shows that, contrary to what many assume, the gains in women’s lifespan are not due mainly to reductions in infant and child mortality. In fact, nearly half the increase comes in adulthood.

‘New’ Years Gained by Women Worldwide, 1900-2000

Increased life expectancy at birth

30 years
Increased life expectancy at age 15
15 years
Increased life expectancy at age 45
10 years
Increased life expectancy at age 65
7 years

Source: S. Watkins, J. Menken, and J. Bongaarts, “Demographic Foundations of Family Change,” American Sociological Review 52, no. 3 (1987): 346-58.

The first challenge is in restructuring adults’ relationships with the children they do have, during new years that mainly take place when the children are adults. For example, inheriting a family farm or business is much less straightforward, as the older generation often is unwilling or unable to retire when the children are of age. Consider the problem of Prince Charles, crown prince of the United Kingdom. His mother is continuing to reign at the age of 80, while her son has reached late middle age.

But for the vast majority of parents and their adult children, the big challenge is hierarchy. Should parents continue to treat their children as children when they are adults? Should middle-aged adults continue to treat their parents as key authority figures? If they do so, it will be a detriment to the relationship and increase the distance between them. Their relationship would be more rewarding if they each could treat the other as respected, close kin.

If it is difficult for a child to have an “adult” relationship with a parent, and for parents to let go of power, the challenges of adapting are even greater for male-female relationships. How does demographic change affect the “old deal” that he support her and their children throughout their lives, which are much longer now? Only a single transformation is required in relationships between parents and adult children as they grow older, but there are three transformations necessary in male-female relationships, which serve to rebalance their activities and often relative power.

When the first child is born, the couple’s similar roles as students or, increasingly, workers, diverge as his responsibility for support increases along with hers for care. As children become more independent, she undergoes a “phased retirement” from parenting toward the empty nest. Then, when he retires, he leaves employment to enter her world at home.

Male and female roles used to be more similar in both spheres. Until the late 1800s, most people lived agricultural lives. Three-quarters of men were engaged in farm activities, and presumably nearly all of their wives were, too. Their productive activities were joint. They were not equal: Men owned their wives’ person in common law and normally owned the land as well. Nevertheless, their daily reality was likely less shaped by these factors than by their own personalities and by the crises large and small that they faced as they worked together to provide for their family and care for their children.

The gender division emerged as the 19th century rolled on. More men left agriculture to find jobs in the nation’s expanding manufacturing and service sectors. By 1890, most men were employed in the public sphere. Most women remained in the private one, and growing numbers were becoming the new “housewives” with a purely domestic focus.

The gap between men’s and women’s lives increased to its maximum between 1890 and 1950, before the great increase in women’s nonagricultural, paid employment. The partnership of the farm faded from memory. Hence, when the same forces that led men to more productive modes of family support began to work on women as well after 1950, it seemed to be something totally new, totally alien.

The transformations in women’s economic lives closely resemble those that took place in men’s 100 years earlier. But what will happen to the family? Can men and women regain the notions that they can both be economically productive, as they were in the farm family, and both contribute to raising children? Or have the home and norms and values that domestic women reconstructed over a century become such a foreign place to men that fatherhood will remain a status, but not again an active role?

The question that has dominated for the past half century has been the relationship between work and family for women. Men’s role in domestic work was almost entirely ignored. Margaret Mead, for example, imagined that de facto three sexes were emerging: Working women such as herself, domestic women in the role she had spurned, and men, who, of course, were workers.

Women need men to share in the care of children if they are to become equal in the workplace. It often seems, however, that many are unwilling to share this responsibility, as the growing “gate-keeping” literature attests. As men kept women away from the family car for so many decades, so, too, are women finding ways to convince men that they are incompetent parents.

Moreover, other barriers have arisen. The rise in divorce makes parenthood very different for men, as the presumption of female custody forces many men to be absent fathers and many others to become stepfathers. The demographic transition of longer lives and smaller families, intertwined with the industrial revolution, has made equality both more and less likely. Ideally, emerging nations that experience both at the same time will have an easier path.

Frances Goldscheider is professor of sociology, emerita, at Brown University; and College Park professor of family studies at the University of Maryland.


Sarah Allen and Alan Hawkins, “Maternal Gatekeeping: Mothers’ Beliefs and Behaviors That Inhibit Greater Father Involvement in Family Work, Journal of Marriage and Family 61, no. 1 (1999): 199-212.

Eileen Crimmins et al., “Changing Mortality and Morbidity Rates and Health Status and Life Expectancy of the Older Population,” Demography 31, no. 1 (1994): 159-75.

Claudia Goldin, Understanding the Gender Gap: An Economic History of American Women (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990).

Donald Hernandez, Children (New York: Russell Sage Foundation Census Monograph Series, 1993).

Ralph LaRossa, The Modernization of Fatherhood (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997).

Glenna Matthews, Just a Housewife: The Rise and Fall of Domesticity in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).

Susan Watkins, Jane Menken, and John Bongaarts, “Demographic Foundations of Family Change,” American Sociological Review 52, no. 3 (1987): 346-58.

Barbara Welter, “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860,” American Quarterly 18, no. 2 (Summer 1966): 151-74.

Laura Ingalls Wilder, “Why Marry a Farmer?” Redbook, 1915.