Is the Family In Decline? (analysis)
 
Estimated Number of Printed Pages: 4
 
TOPICS COVERED: In the "Halftime" chapter of Why Do We Love These People?, I spend a few pages discussing how often we have these illusions about what families are and have always been. And how these illusions can be truly harmful, because they make us feel like failures, when the truth is individual families have always been diverse, and the institution of families has always been changing.

So, in The Factbook, I wanted us to address popular myths about modern family-life. Of course, the biggest, most popular of these is that marriage and the family are dead. In fact, that isn't a new myth: we found articles bemoaning the death of the family as far back as the 1800s, and we're sure that they probably go much further back than that. ("You know, things just haven't been the same since you started spending so much time with those cave-paintings of yours." "I'm just trying to give our kids a better home than the ditch I had when I was growing up. Is that so terrible? And whose bright idea was it to give Junior that new wheel-thing? Has he been back to the cave since?")

So the next time you read an obituary about the family, consider the following – a collection of major points that we've addressed in The Factbook. Because families are indeed changing. But the Golden Age of the Family isn't in the past. It is in the future.
 
MEMOS ON RELATED INFORMATION: Well, that includes the entire Factbook. For other analysis memos, see What's the Family Going to Look Like? (analysis), Is the Family in Decline? (Demographics), Family and Household Demographics, Idealization of the Family / Forecasts, Marriage / Divorce Analysis, Childless by Choice (analysis), Single Parents (analysis), Fatherhood (analysis)
 
Links to Sources for this material are available below. Please also see The Factbook Sources page for further information regarding Factbook sources and their availability.
 
 

IS THE FAMILY IN DECLINE? ANALYSIS

 
 
THE TREND AS IDENTIFIED IN MASS MEDIA:
Marriage and the Family are dead. Long live Marriage and the Family.
 
HOW SOME GET IT RIGHT
 
 
Point 1: The popular line that the family is dying; long-live the family just can't be supported.
 
Point 2: The nuclear family isn't and wasn't all that it is cracked up to be.
 
Point 3: The purpose of family is changing.
 
Point 4: Family size and household size are declining BUT our understanding of both is different than in years past.
 
Point 5: Women and men are delaying or forgoing marriage, BUT they still get married.
 
Point 6: Women are increasingly older when they begin to have children, and they have less children, but our frame of reference may be off.
 
Point 7: Women are raising children on their own, outside of marriage BUT there's an incorrect presumption that it's voluntary and permanent.
 
Point 8: Institutions have taken over many of the traditional duties of the family BUT that's necessarily a bad thing.
 
 
Point 9: Moving from rural to urban environments generally serves to weaken (even end) the extended family household; BUT that doesn't mean that extended families with strong ties automatically end if they live in different houses.
 
Point 10: Education of women generally leads to: more women in the workforce, delay of marriage, and a lower birth rate BUT there's another reason: birth control.
 
 
HOW SOME GET IT WRONG
 
 
Point 1: I wrote the trend as if it were for a nation or king. It isn't much of an exaggeration: the media (and politicians) often present the nuclear family with an over-idealized, over-nostalgic view.
 
Often, the article isn't about "the family," but, really about is the about "nuclear family," specifically, and then equates its decline with demise of all families. The reality is there's a continuing transformation of "the family," which has gone on throughout history.
 
These articles are also frequently culturally-biased – they ignore that different cultural and ethnic traditions of family not just in the U.S., but around the world.
 
And there's a distinction that's often lost – there's a confusion between what's an ideal and what's the reality. For a period of time, it seems as if the ideal and the reality of the American nuclear family were perceived to be one and the same, and now they aren't.

Point 2: "The nuclear family" is a sacred, cherished, fundamental, historical institution that our society is based on BUT.
 
. . . the image of the nuclear family as the best is really a post-WWII / Baby Boomer version of family
when historically, when we were early primates, it was mom and the chimps. later, the extended family was significant, and it too has been defined differently over the generations. and while it was more of the ideal by our nation's founding, it was still something that you may not have been able to have because of economics, larger social forces (see next item)
 
. . . it wasn't available to good chunks of the population
(immigrants, slaves, indentured servants, children who were apprenticed or sent to work)
 
. . . its role varies by culture
 
 

Point 3: The family's purpose is different, so the changing shouldn't be a surprise – and maybe it's even a good thing.
 
If the family changes from a unit of economic production to a model of human relationship / one of affection, then it would seem that family structure would necessarily (automatically?) change with that.
 
For example, if I want less kids because I don't need more farm hands. And that formerly large family would have operated very differently. also because if I have ten kids, I'm not going to remember all of their names; the older kids will end up raising the younger ones. I will be divided in my time and attention between all ten. If I have a smaller family, I'll have time to develop those relationships, and take more care to work on my kids' development as individuals ("whole persons"), as supposed to training them how to milk a cow and get them into the fields as soon as they can walk. Similarly, my value as a person within the family is no longer determined by how much I produce (either in the fields or in reproduction of "new labor"), but my contribution to the family's relationships: am I a nurturer, instigator of problems, cold, distant, loving.
 
Point 4: Family size and household size are declining BUT our understanding of both is different than in years past.
 
It isn't just divorce and staying/becoming single that is making up smaller families (that's true for the past few decades but less as you go further back in history) Historically, households/ families included boarders, servants, as well as extended family.
 
Mobility is a factor: it was harder to go and there wasn't anywhere to move to.
 
And don't forget that when people talk about the rise of households, they frequently include a significant elderly single population (widows) that will continue to increase as the population gets older, when the article is really talking about delay of marriage and/or divorce.
 
Point 5: Women and men are delaying or forgoing marriage, BUT
 
. . . there's a presumption that the delaying / forgoing is voluntary and permanent.
when the vast majority of Americans still get married and those who get divorced usually remarry.

. . . there's a presumption that earlier marriage is better.
when younger marrieds have a higher divorce rate.
 
. . . there's a presumption that the marriages that they'd have had would have been good ones.
 
. . . but we think it's a consistent rise in the age at first marriage, when there's an overall increase, but that it's been more of a rollercoaster – often the ages have varied because of changes in the economy and other events (e.g. wars, the Depression).
 
Point 6: Women are increasingly older when they begin to have children, and they have less children en toto BUT
 
. . . there's a presumption that it's voluntary and permanent.
See Misc Update and Childless by Choice pages, Sherwood's Fertility and Fertility Update
 
. . . and the frame of reference is skewed because the analysis usually looks at the post-WW II / Baby Boom numbers which were atypically low.

We're significantly higher than that period, but not as much as higher as before that. I think because we know about increases in life expectancy, child / youth marriage in historical times, we think it's a consistent rise in the age, when there's an overall increase, but that it's been more of a rollercoaster to the increase based on the economy, other events (e.g. wars, the Depression).
 
Point 7: Women are raising children on their own, outside of marriage BUT there's an incorrect presumption that it's voluntary and permanent (see single parents page).
 
See Single Parents (trend analysis).
 
Point 8: Institutions have taken over many of the traditional duties of the family BUT that's not necessarily a bad thing.
 
Historically, families relied on themselves for medical care, religion, economics, food production etc etc.
 
Education is increasingly institutionalized, and that does tend to homogenize the information taught, and would yes, expose children to ideas that are contrary to a family's traditional beliefs. But homogeneity and exposure to those ideas is probably essential in an increasingly globalized world/environment or a pluralist society such as ours. And education is increasingly specialized; the amount of information is growing exponentially; there's no way to have a parent pass down knowledge of a trade and remain successful in a modern era that upgrades its technology faster than you can blink, etc. There are generational differences in technology, information – which now may be a prerequisite – that need professionals who study, are current, and can inculcate all that.
 
And there's an argument to be made that that might actually strengthen the family because it is the source for culture, those values, etc.
There's a chicken and the egg problem, too. Some argue that institutions like social security have damaged the family because people rely on it to take care of the family's elderly / disabled instead of doing it themselves. Is that true? Or would those have just had nothing before? I think that's probably a matter of degrees. And the argument usually looks from the children's failing to take care of the elderly, then the elderly believing that they should stay out on their own, which as we know, is a distinctly American point of view. The mixed-metaphor alternative is sticking our heads in the sand and failing to anticipate a real problem (i.e. even if children didn't rely on Social Security to provide for their parents, in a couple decades there will be fewer kids to take care of the elderly – and not on a pay into the system, but house-to-house, level).
 
Childcare's a good example of where the US government decided not to create a wide-institution because it was potentially anti-family, and refused to look at the coming realities of the situation. They were trying to force women to stay home and care for their kids, but the larger economic forces could not over come that desire / policy decision.
 
And NB that these argument here is that secular and government institutions are the problems. I haven't seen anyone blame a religious institution for interfering with the family in quite the same way, when that's obviously false.

Point 9: Moving from rural to urban environments generally serves to weaken (even end) the extended family household; BUT that doesn't mean that extended families with strong ties automatically end if they live in different houses.
 
I think the key is the strength of extended family in the culture. In our independent, American individualist tradition, we've been taught to strike out on our own. But in other areas / cultures (such as Africa (e.g. Nigeria), Filipino), there's a stronger tradition of extended family and they seem to withstand urbanization better. Recall also how some studies argue members of the family act to often facilitate migration to urban areas, or other countries.
 
Point 10: Education of women generally leads to: more women in the workforce, delay of marriage, and a lower birth rate BUT there's a another reason: birth control.
 
I think education may be overrated on this one. It's an indicator – a really good predicator of behavior . But I 'm not sure it's the cause for all that. At least, not by itself. There are other factors that coincide with it to make the difference– they may be cultural, economic, or other, but....
 
China's one-birth policy is the reason for the drop in birth rate there; it wasn't increased education or women in the workforce. And educated wealthy Kuwaitis are still having large families.
 
Or maybe it's what you're learning: sex ed. Education on reproduction and other birth control programs (either required or facilitated by government and NGOs) have been similarly successful in other nations, even when poverty and other educational attainment has remained low. (And I think it would be hard to study it the other way around: that is, to find women who had gotten a Ph.D. in something without ever having any anatomy etc classes.)
 
And there's perhaps a misleading gloss that an "educated" woman doesn't want children, as if this means that, I dunno, either the education teaches her that having children is beneath her, or a waste of her time, or something. Maybe it's just sheer busy-ness. A woman who is taking her studies seriously just may not be available to look for a husband or have a child. The girls getting an "M.R.S." degree spend as much time on their hair and clothes as I did on cramming for finals. (And it' s not just school, but career-wise. Most young lawyers never leave their office in order to meet anyone. They might want to, but they can't.)
 
And having a degree doesn't keep you in the workforce. It may get you there to begin with (by desire or sheer necessity), but it doesn't keep you there when there are competing demands (e.g. kids).