Continuity & Change in the American Family


Lynne M. Casper & Suzanne M. Bianchi

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    To Larry Long and Martin O'Connell, our Census Bureau mentors and longtime colleagues, who showed us how to discern and write about demographic trends


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    This project was conceived in 1997, when David Klein and Bert Adams, editors of Sage's Understanding Families book series, approached Lynne Casper about the need for a demographically focused book on the family. Lynne enticed Suzanne into collaborating on a proposal and enlisted Martin O'Connell to write Chapter 3, on childbearing. The project would never have been undertaken without the substantial commitment of resources by the Population Division of the U.S. Bureau of the Census. John Long, Robert Kominski, and Martin O'Connell deserve special thanks for their support.

    During the 1998–99 academic year, we team-taught a graduate seminar in family demography at the University of Maryland, an endeavor that proved to be a lot of fun and also helped us to formulate many of the questions that most intrigued us about demographic changes in the family. After we completed a first-draft manuscript for this book, we wrote a Population Bulletin titled “American Families” (Bianchi and Casper 2000) at the invitation of the Population Reference Bureau. Our work for PRB gave us the perspective we needed to rework the introduction, Chapter 1, and the conclusion of the book. The insightful questions and suggestions of PRB editor Mary Kent not only improved our Population Bulletin but contributed to this book.

    Thanks are due to John Haaga and Peter Donaldson of PRB, who provided a congenial sabbatical getaway for Suzanne that greatly assisted her in finishing work on the manuscript. This book also could not have been completed without the resources and encouragement provided by Christine Bachrach at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), and we are both deeply grateful for her support.

    Many people contribute to an undertaking such as this. We are especially indebted to our students and colleagues at the Census Bureau, the University of Maryland, and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Special thanks go to Philip Cohen, who generated many of the tabulations that underlie the tables and figures in this volume. Philip also contributed to Chapter 1 through his collaboration with Lynne on a paper dealing with multigenerational households (Cohen and Casper forthcoming from Sociological Perspectives), to Chapter 2 through his collaboration with Lynne on the measurement of cohabitation (which appeared in Demography; Casper and Cohen 2000), and to Chapter 10 through his collaboration with Suzanne on trends in mothers' labor force participation (published in Monthly Labor Review; Cohen and Bianchi 1999). Liana Sayer, in collaboration with Lynne, produced the estimates of types and outcomes of cohabitation from the National Survey of Families and Households reported in Chapter 2. Liana also collaborated with Suzanne on the analysis of time diary data on time with children and time spent on housework (published in Social Forces; Bianchi et al. 2000) that appear here. Kristin Smith contributed to Chapter 7 through her collaboration with Lynne on a paper concerning children in self-care (Journal of Family Issues; Casper and Smith forthcoming).

    Two individuals provided yeoman's service in putting the manuscript together, making editing changes, and correcting figures and tables: Beth Mattingly of the University of Maryland and Elizabeth Mumford of NICHD, both whizzes at MS Word, MS Excel, and working with good humor under pressure. Chris Morett generated some of the data for Chapter 9 while an intern at the Census Bureau in the summer of 1999, and David Cort and Liana Sayer provided invaluable service in tracking down references. We owe special thanks to Census Bureau colleagues Jason Fields and Kristin Smith for their assistance with analysis of the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) data. Jason assisted with the analysis of children's well-being (Chapter 8), and Kristin collaborated with Lynne on the analysis of child-care arrangements (Chapter 7). Thanks are also due to Cathy O'Brien, Jane Dye, and Joan Kidwell at the Census Bureau who assisted us in tracking down historical data and verifying numbers.

    The final manuscript benefits from the thoughtful reviewer comments of two leading family demographers, Pamela Smock and Linda Waite. The project was launched and nurtured by David Klein and Bert Adams, with David providing extensive comments at various points. We also greatly benefited from the good humor and gentle prodding of our editor at Sage Publications, Jim Brace-Thompson.

    Finally, our spouses contributed in two different but equally important ways. Matt, Lynne's husband, an aerospace engineer and ever a whiz on the computer, worked 24-hour shifts at some points, guiding Lynne through pesky tables and figures (better than that MS paper clip) and helping make sure deadlines were met (or missed by a little rather than a lot!). Matt also shopped, cooked, and did laundry so Lynne could have more time to devote to the project. Mark, Suzanne's husband, as always did extra parenting duty (almost without complaint!) when she inevitably allowed work on chapter drafts and manuscript revisions to spill over into “family time.” In the end, it is their support, day in and day out, that most contributes to our successes. The insights we have into how families are changing reflect their collaboration with us in the “big adventure”—crafting our own balance in work and family life.


    Recently, one of us had the opportunity to attend the wedding of a close friend's daughter. As with most weddings, the event came off beautifully, despite the complexity of the seating arrangements required to accommodate all of the bride's and groom's various family members. The bride, age 29, was conceived outside marriage at a time when nonmarital births were less common than today. Her biological parents married shortly before her birth but did not feel financially able to care for her and therefore placed her for adoption. She was adopted as an infant and raised by two adoptive parents, who were present at the wedding.

    In her mid-20s, the bride sought out her birth parents and discovered that subsequent to her adoption, they had two other daughters who were now of college age. The bride's two full biological sisters, whom she met as adults, were bridesmaids in the wedding. When the bride sought her birth parents, she found two biological parents no longer married to each other but open to a relationship with the daughter they had long ago placed for adoption. Thus her biological mother and her mother's cohabiting partner attended the wedding. Her biological father, who had subsequently married again, also attended the wedding, along with his second wife and their adopted 10-year-old daughter, who was the flower girl in the wedding.

    Indeed, it is difficult to describe all the relatives of the bride who were present to witness her marriage. By some counts, the bride might be said to have had three mothers present at her wedding—an adoptive mother, a biological mother, and a stepmother (her biological father's current wife). When she established connections with her biological parents, she also found two biological siblings and another sibling not biologically related to her (the adopted daughter of her biological father).

    Needless to say, the groom's relatives had their hands full just trying to figure out how all the bride's guests were related to each other. Yet the groom's family was only somewhat less complicated. The groom's parents were divorced, and the groom's mother attended with her same-sex cohabiting partner. His father also attended the wedding, with his second wife and their 13-year-old son, the groom's half brother.

    We begin our book with this example of family complexity, first, because it is a real-life example, not one we made up. More important, our rendition of the array of relatives at this wedding allows us to comment on the demographic perspective and illustrate several of the themes that will emerge as we track change and continuity in American family life.

    The foregoing account provides a descriptive skeleton of the bride's family life in which the first order of business is merely to understand how the bride is embedded in various family relationships and how she came to be connected to so many different people that she could have a wedding at which the guests would include her three mothers, two (or three, if we count cohabiting relationships) fathers, and three siblings (two full, one adopted). Our example illustrates where family demographers first concentrate their efforts—on detailed description of family relationships—in order to anchor speculation, hypotheses, and theorizing about family change.

    The demographic events experienced by the bride's and groom's parents and their connections to kin also point to several important transitions in family life, some of which have changed greatly in recent years. The story contains a transition to marriage; a nonmarital pregnancy; two adoptions; child rearing by biological parents, stepparents, and adoptive parents; two marital disruptions; remarriages; and both same-sex and heterosexual cohabitation. Trends in many of these behaviors form the core of what we describe about American families in this volume. During her childhood and young adult years, the bride experienced changes in living arrangements and connections to various kin. She was born to one set of parents but then lived throughout her childhood with another set of parents. Presumably, she spent time on her own before marrying at age 29 and now was moving into her own married-couple family. She developed connections in recent years of her life to kin not available to her earlier in life. The dynamism of family life is apparent in this example, as well as the complexity of U.S. family relationships and the nuances involved in studying them properly.

    Absent from our discussion of the bride's wedding is an exploration of the emotional attachment the bride felt for each of her “mothers” and “fathers,” although one might presume some bond of affection between the bride and each of her kin, given that all were in attendance at the wedding. Demographic description of the family tends not to focus on meanings or emotions; rather, it leaves that to the purview of the social psychologist. Yet family demographer Frances Goldscheider (1995) argues that documenting and understanding family demographic behavior can help us to connect individuals and their societies and to forge the link between the micro behaviors of individuals and the macro structures of societies. Present in any demographic description of family events, including our example of a wedding, is plenty of grist for further research at both individual and societal levels. For example, would the bride's biological parents have been more, less, or equally as likely to place her for adoption if her birth had occurred today, when births outside marriage are far more common and presumably less stigmatized in U.S. society? And which parents will the bride feel obligation toward should they require assistance in their old age—all equally, her adoptive parents who raised her, or, perhaps, her biological mother, who may be the most needy if she ends up without a partner in old age? Conversely, will the bride be as likely as her biological father's other children, whom he raised, to receive a financial bequest from him upon his death?

    After we describe U.S. family trends, how do we interpret them? What are their causes? What are the consequences, positive and negative, of recent changes in American families? As we shall discuss below, it is far easier to gain agreement on what family demographic changes have taken place in the United States than it is to achieve consensus on what those trends mean.

    Is the American Family in Decline?

    Many of the trends in family formation and dissolution in the United States in the past few decades are not disputed, but discussion of the meanings of these trends has often taken the form of acrimonious debate about family life and the future viability of the family. David Popenoe (1988, 1993, 1996) has been one of the most outspoken proponents of the view that the American family is in crisis. He argues that the family as an institution in U.S. society is in unprecedented decline. Americans are in the process of rejecting the bedrock of family functioning, the nuclear family. Increasingly, the family is becoming ill suited to serve its two most important functions: rearing children and providing sustained emotional sustenance to its members. Although not as outspoken as Popenoe, many family demographers have also voiced concern about the effects on children of some of the trends that so disturb him (Bumpass 1990; Cherlin 1999; McLanahan and Sandefur 1994; Preston 1984).

    Others, particularly feminist scholars such as Judith Stacey (1990, 1993, 1996), argue that what is in decline is our normative idea of what a family is, or rather a particular historical ideological picture of the American family. This idealized conception, often referred to as the “Ozzie and Harriet” family, depicts a family as one in which parents marry for life, children are born inside the marriage, and the mother cares for the children in the home while the father works outside the home to provide for the family. This image, Stacey argues, is undergoing metamorphosis as we come to realize that the 1950s version of “ideal” family life is no longer viable, or even desirable. Those who offer this interpretation of family change are far more sanguine than Popenoe about the future of the American family. Although also concerned about negative consequences for children (see Cowan 1993; Stacey 1993), they are more likely to see the changing economy rather than the family as the culprit and are more likely to emphasize the positive aspects of changes in women's opportunities that have accompanied changes in their roles within the family.

    Those on both sides of the “family decline” debate seem to accept the view that the 1950s version of the family was historically rooted in unusual times—bolstered by a vibrant economy and by the lack of opportunity afforded to women. That is, in the 1950s, discrimination against women in the labor market was widespread, and most women had few opportunities outside the home. At the same time, the post-World War II economy was expanding rapidly, creating many opportunities for even low-skilled male wage earners to command wages that could support a family (Levy 1998).

    Along with economic conditions, family demographic behaviors were also unique in the mid-20th century (Cherlin 1992). Certain family behaviors today resemble behaviors of the 1930s more closely than those of the 1950s, for example. Family demographer Paul Glick (1975) has labeled the family demographic picture of the late 1930s as “gloomy”; he provides this description:

    Many marriages had been delayed, so that the average age at marriage had risen, and a near-record nine percent of the women 50 years old had never married. Birth rates had lingered at a low level. … Lifetime childlessness was edging up toward 20 percent and many of the children whom some leading demographers thought were merely being postponed were never born. (Pp. 15–16)

    Why was the picture of delayed marriage and forgone childbearing gloomy? The implicit assumption of observers of marriage and fertility patterns in the 1930s was that delayed marriage and forgone childbearing were not what women wanted, but rather a result of the Great Depression and the dire economic constraints faced by young adults during that decade.

    As Glick notes, the picture changed dramatically with the post-World War II Baby Boom, when marriage occurred at early ages, a very high proportion of women married, and fertility increased. But the description he offers of the 1930s is quite similar to what a demographer today might write about recent trends in marriage and fertility. However, in the early part of the 21st century, it is less clear that these trends would be described as gloomy. If current marriage and family changes are largely viewed as consequences of poor employment opportunities for young men, as some argue (Oppenheimer, Kalmijn, and Lim 1997), they might indeed be termed gloomy. But to the extent that delayed marriage and fewer children result from greater educational and labor market opportunities for women in the 1980s and 1990s, recent trends might be considered anything but gloomy.

    Two tendencies often impede observers' understanding of family change and cloud the current debate about the meaning of family change. One is the tendency to forget history and instead project the present into the future. That is, it is often assumed, at least implicitly, that changes in the family have been linear over time and that they will continue, unabated, indefinitely. Often this is not the case, as the above comparison of the 1930s, the 1950s, and the present illustrates. The other tendency that limits consensus on the “disappearing” American family is the tendency of commentators to choose particular starting points to use in their assessments of change that will support the arguments they wish to make. For example, changes in certain family behaviors can be exaggerated or minimized depending on whether one charts the trends from midcentury, when a unique set of demographic and economic circumstances prevailed (early marriage, early childbearing, unprecedented economic expansion), or from some other time point. In this volume, we try to be cognizant of the facts that trends are not always linear and that many of our data series begin with the usual post-World War II period.

    The family demographic perspective guides our selection of topics and interpretation of trends. We are sociologists with training and research careers in family demography, and both of us have spent a number of years analyzing family patterns at the U.S. Bureau of the Census. Below, to orient the reader, we provide an overview of the demographic perspective and outline some of the theoretical traditions that have been most influential for demographers' understanding of family change. We also explain some of the terminology used throughout this volume and conclude with brief descriptions of the chapters that follow.

    A Note on the Demographic Approach to Studying Families

    Family demographers study the changing composition of families, the ever-changing nature of intergenerational and gender ties that bind individuals together into familial and household units. The study of household formation, dissolution, and living arrangements that forms the core of family demography is ultimately the study of individual and societal well-being, for it is through these family ties and household groupings that resources are exchanged and less able members are cared for by more able members (Sweet and Bumpass 1987). Indeed, much of the family demographic work of the past few decades has examined the interrelationships of family change and socioeconomic outcomes for various segments of the population. Thus family demographers focus on marriage, divorce, child-bearing, and living arrangements in order to understand both why individuals behave as they do toward each other and why, when those individual behaviors are aggregated into nations, societies look similar or dissimilar, not only in their family configurations but also in their economic, political, and cultural institutions (Goldscheider 1995).

    Family demography focuses on structure and process: family composition at points in time and transitions between different family statuses (Teachman 1993). Family demographers describe who lives together and how this changes over time. But also of major concern is how people come to be joined in families—transitions into and out of first marriages, into parenthood, into and out of cohabiting relationships, into and out of remarriages, and so forth.

    Like most demographers, family demographers tend to think in terms of rates and “at-risk” populations; they tend to want to separate family change into components such as change in population composition versus what reflects change in the propensity or likelihood that some family event, such as marriage, occurs. Demographers also tend to categorize change as reflecting age, period, or cohort effects—that is, they tend to separate explanations of change into those that emphasize aging of the population (or life-course change of individuals); those that focus on broad, sweeping societal or time-period effects; and those that result as successively younger birth cohorts with different life experiences replace older cohorts. Demographers also think about life stages or life-course events in terms of duration of time (or person-years or -months) spent in certain states, such as married and living with a spouse or living in a single-parent family. This represents a unique way of thinking about the world that begins with careful description and then moves on to causal interpretation.

    At the heart of careful description lies the concept of a “universe” (the denominator in a percentage) and the time period under consideration. Let us try to illustrate. In November 1999, the Fertility and Family Statistics Branch of the U.S. Bureau of the Census received a phone call from Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan's office about a disturbing news article regarding the decline of the American family. An Associated Press (1999) story heralded the results of a study by the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center (NORC) that found that just 26 percent of households were made up of married couples with children in 1998, down from 45 percent in the 1970s. The article also stated that NORC's results painted an even bleaker picture of marriage than recent Census Bureau figures, which reported that 36 percent of families were made up of married couples with children in 1997. A little more than a year earlier, an article had appeared in the Washington Post (Vobejda 1998) based on a Census Bureau report (Bryson and Casper 1998) declaring that the composition of the American family was stabilizing. The senator's office was calling to get the story straight. How could one article report the stabilization of the American family and then, just a little more than a year later, another decry its demise? And how could the two estimates (26 percent versus 36 percent) of the proportion of households with married couples and children be so different? Could the percentage of married-couple households with children really have declined by 10 points in a year?

    The discrepancy, it turned out, was the result of a reporter's failure to take into account the difference in the denominators, or universes, for the two statistics. The 26 percent figure referred to the proportion of all households that included a two-parent family with children, but not all households include families. Persons living alone, for example, are not classified as families. The 36 percent figure actually referred to the proportion of all family households that contained married couples with children. When the focus is narrowed to only housing units that contain families, the percentage headed by married couples with children is higher than when all households—family plus nonfamily households—are considered. The Census Bureau report actually noted that 25 percent of all households were maintained by two parents with children, a figure very close to NORC's estimate of 26 percent. In addition, the Census Bureau report (and the Washington Post article) highlighted changes in the 1990s, whereas the NORC report (and the Associated Press story) focused on longer-term changes occurring after 1970. Thus when 1970 was used as a point of comparison, the two-parent family was seen to have declined substantially, but when the mid-1990s were the point of comparison, no change was noted.

    The demographic perspective embodies a tendency to think in terms of rates and composition and a desire to separate these two components in explanations of change. What do we mean by that? Demographers often standardize for age composition in order to isolate “true” or “real” rates of behavioral change. For example, suppose the number of marriages decreases in the United States between two time points. A question that might arise is, Does this change represent a decline in the popularity of marriage? The demographer's first instinct is to ask the question, Has the population eligible for, or “at risk” of, first entering marriage shrunk in size or changed in some important way, causing the number of marriages to decline? For example, we know that first marriage is most likely to occur in young adulthood. What happens if the number of adults in the population between the ages of 20 and 29 declines, as was the case after the Baby Boomers passed through these ages? Marriages might decline just because there are fewer people in the age range in which first marriage is most likely to occur. For this reason, rather than examining merely the number of marriages, the demographer examines a rate, such as the first marriage rate of never-married females ages 20 to 29. If this rate of first marriage declines between two time points, we move closer to the interpretation that perhaps the popularity of marriage has declined.

    But the inferential leap is still great, because most demographic behaviors, marriage included, are closely related to age and sensitive to shifts in the timing of events in individuals' lives. Hence family demographers have always been quite attentive to the age patterning of behaviors and to the importance of understanding the effects of shifts in age structure. Let's consider another example. The rate of first marriage for women in their 20s could decline either because more women remain single throughout their lifetime and there is more “nonmarriage” in the population or because a greater proportion of women are postponing marriage, perhaps in favor of doing other things, such as finishing school and getting established in the labor market before they marry. One might be more comfortable drawing the conclusion that marriage is becoming less popular if the former behavior, more lifetime singlehood, seems to be what is happening rather than if the latter behavior, marrying at later ages, is reducing the marriage rate for young women (Oppenheimer 1997). That is, the timing of family demographic events in people's lives is important and influences how we interpret change.

    Theoretical Frameworks in Family Demography

    Demography in general, and family demography in particular, is often accused of being merely descriptive. Demographers, it is claimed, have no theory. Like us, most family demographers claim homes in other disciplines, such as sociology, economics, anthropology, and social psychology, and frequently incorporate theories from these disciplines into their demographic studies. Family demographers, then, like most social scientists, have many theories about what causes individuals to behave as they do or what factors, demographic and nondemographic, impinge on historical and societal settings. Like other social scientists, demographers share the basic premise that good, sound, empirical description is the bedrock of theorizing. Without it, theories can often be spun to explain things that don't exist. To return to the above example, we must be sure that the likelihood of marrying is indeed declining before we can begin to theorize about why marriage is becoming less popular. If the declining number of marriages can be explained by a smaller population at risk or eligible to marry or by a shift in the age when marriage typically occurs, then a grand theory explaining why marriage is no longer valued is pointless. Much of the value of family demography, and indeed of this volume, is that it emphasizes making sure that there is a sound empirical basis from which to make claims about family change. Once we are certain about the nature and magnitude of family change, we can begin to theorize about the mechanisms causing that change.

    This is not to suggest that all family demography has to contribute is description. Indeed, several theoretical strands that meld the demographic perspective with theories from other disciplines have been influential in explaining family change on the population level, and researchers often employ them to interpret changes in family behavior at the micro level. Below, we discuss three of these theoretical perspectives: demographic transition theory, the life-course perspective, and family economic theory.

    Researchers have long used demographic transition theory to explain family and fertility change on the population level. Recently, some scholars have suggested that the United States and Europe are engaged in a “second demographic transition” and have made modifications to the original theory to explain more recent family change (Lesthaeghe 1995).

    Probably the most frequently invoked perspective for thinking about family change in the family demographic literature in the United States today is the life-course perspective. This perspective seems less a theory than an overarching framework for thinking about family change in the lives of individuals. The perspective jibes well with how demographers think: The life-course perspective's focus on transitions and trajectories and the importance of attention to historical settings and places parallel nicely the demographer's toolbox emphasizing rates, person-years of experience, and age, period, and cohort effects.

    Finally, the microeconomic theory of the family offered by economists such as Gary Becker (1974, 1991; Becker, Landes, and Michael 1977) has become influential among family demographers in their assessment of family behavior in the past few decades and coincides with a growing interest in family behaviors within economics. Although this perspective has increasingly been criticized and modified by both economists (especially feminist economists) and family demographers outside economics, aspects of Becker's theory concerning why family members act as they do continue to undergird the choices of topics that family demographers study and interpretations of the behaviors of individual family members. Hence we also sketch the tenets of this perspective below.

    Demographic Transition Theory

    Perhaps the main theory in demography is that of the demographic transition—the notion that a society moves from a high-mortality, high-fertility regime through a transitional phase in which mortality declines, first creating large population growth. Fertility ultimately follows suit until the society arrives at a situation in which mortality and fertility reach low levels and are again more or less in balance, as they were before the transition. Some family theorists, most notably Lesthaeghe (1995) and van de Kaa (1987), argue that Western countries such as the United States and European nations are experiencing a second demographic transition, motivated by some of the same factors that influenced the first transition from high- to low-fertility regimes but also with some marked differences in the causal mechanisms. Lesthaeghe (1995) argues that ideational change, in particular the increased value placed on individual autonomy, and to a lesser extent the goal of female emancipation or gender equality motivate family changes in the second demographic transition, changes that are unlikely to be reversed.

    What characterizes the second demographic transition? Lesthaeghe charts three phases. The first, characterizing the 1960s and 1970s, witnessed an accelerated upswing in divorce, fertility decline, and delayed marriage. This was followed by the spread of premarital cohabitation and an increase in nonmarital births. Finally, in the last phase, reached only by some European countries (and the United States), there has been a plateau in divorce rates, more postmarital cohabitation replacing remarriage to some extent, some recuperation in fertility, especially at later ages, and an end to the decline in teen fertility. The results of these changes are an increase in single-parent families, with increased risk of poverty for children; more one-person households; and life-cycle transitions that are less strictly (or normatively) patterned and more complex.

    Whereas the first demographic transition was motivated by a “quiet increase” in the importance of individual autonomy and a desire for improved child well-being, the second transition is much more adult focused. The emphasis on individual autonomy is more public, and increased “quality” is demanded of adult relationships (which makes it harder for individuals to sustain lasting commitments such as marriage). Individuals are also increasingly unwilling to accept the institutional control of the state or the church that characterized earlier periods. Finally, Lesthaeghe (1995) points to advanced consumerism and an increased market orientation as factors affecting the second demographic transition.

    The Life-Course Perspective and Family Demography

    As early as 1906, with the work of Roundtree on poverty, “the family life cycle has been associated with family demography” (Teachman, Polonko, and Scanzoni 1987). The family demographer most influential in developing the family life-cycle approach in the United States was longtime U.S. Census Bureau demographer Paul Glick (1979: Fig. 5), who tracked the “typical” ages at which women of different birth cohorts made transitions between family life-cycle stages—for example, the average age at which women first married, had a first birth and entered the family-building stage of the life cycle, or experienced the departure of the last child from the household, signaling the beginning of the “empty nest” stage of family life. Glick's work was ahead of its time in focusing attention on important family transitions, but the family life-cycle approach was ultimately discarded as a conceptual model by demographers who found the focus on stages too constraining theoretically (Teachman et al. 1987). As families changed, many individuals' lives did not follow orderly sets of life stages, families were often broken by divorce long before one spouse died, children left home but returned again with some frequency, and increased cohabitation made transitions between “family” stages uncertain.

    Family demographers have increasingly turned to a life-course perspective of the family that focuses more on transitions than on stages. Researchers who take the life-course perspective do not assume predetermined stages and are more interested in studying family behaviors by focusing on the number, timing, and sequencing of important family-related transitions that occur during individuals' lives. As Glen Elder (1985), a leading proponent of the life-course perspective, has noted, the concepts of trajectory and transition are central in the contemporary study of the life course. Individuals are viewed as following, over the course of their lives, life trajectories. Components of a life trajectory include work and family decisions. Individuals' family trajectories are marked by transitions (or what a demographer would more commonly call events). People make transitions from being unmarried to being married, from being childless to being parents, from being married to being divorced or widowed, and so forth. Researchers who invoke a family life-course perspective are interested in many of the same events that Glick studied to define family life-cycle stages. But life-course analysts prefer the trajectory concept—the notion that as we age, we all make pathways, and that individual pathways take different directions.

    Trajectories are marked by sequences of life events or transitions, and individual trajectories are intertwined bundles of decisions about family and work. Any individual's life trajectory is also interlocked with the trajectories of others, especially significant others such as parents, spouses, and children. Interlocking trajectories connect persons across generations (consanguineal connections) and gender (conjugal connections). Because age, sex, and the notion of cohorts figure prominently in demographic rates, the focus on ties that bind across generations and across gender forms an affinity between family demographic analysis and a life-course perspective.

    The life-course perspective fits conceptually with certain methodological advancements in the study of the family—the increase in longitudinal studies of individuals and modeling techniques that share conceptual properties with the standard life table, a mainstay of demographic analysis. The focus on transitions, timing of transitions in terms of age, and durations between transitions converges with techniques demographers use to study population change. Demographers typically use life tables to study mortality, fertility, and nuptiality regimes. A life table focuses on how long a population “lasts” in a certain state (life in the case of mortality, marriage in the case of nuptiality) and the rate at which the population surviving in a state makes transitions between states. In life tables, duration in (and sequencing of) states as well as transition probabilities are important, just as they are conceptually to life-course analysis (Moen, Dempster-McClain, and Williams 1992). Increasingly, these are subject to modeling with a set of tools known variously as event-history models, survival analysis, and hazards models.

    One final way in which the life-course perspective articulates well with an interest in family demographic change is in the focus on time and space, on the fact that family change or family life trajectories that are typical in one time period or historical setting may not be typical in another time or place. The family life cycle conceptualized by Glick, for example, was well suited to the analysis of mid-20th-century U.S. family behavior, with its low rates of divorce, relatively high rates of marriage and childbearing, and increasing life expectancy. It is not necessarily so fitting for analysis of family trends after 1965, as divorce and cohabitation rates rose, or earlier in the century, when premature death often broke a conjugal partnering before children left the household to form their own families.

    The focus on the contexts in which work and family trajectories unfold allows life-course analysts to contemplate the different consequences that may attend family transitions in different historical settings. For example, the timing of childbearing that is optimal, or at least considered optimal, may vary between settings where child and maternal mortality is high and settings where such mortality is low. The focus on context fits well with the demographer's traditional focus on cohort—the notion that individuals born in a certain time (and place) may encounter unique experiences that carry through their lives and shape later behaviors.

    Demographers have long paid attention to the “demographic metabolisms” of different populations—how rapidly they are replacing themselves or growing and the components of that growth (Ryder 1992), often with a somewhat deterministic, biological model as a frame. The life-course perspective offers a more probabilistic conceptual frame; individuals can take varying pathways, with different consequences attending their different choices.

    Economic Theories of the Family

    The development of family economics in the 1960s was linked to several theoretical streams within economics: life-cycle theories of consumption, theories of human capital development and labor supply, and work on household production and time allocation (Willis 1987). A whole new literature sprang up that examined marriage and fertility behaviors and decisions about the use of time and the consumption of goods within the home.

    Gary Becker's (1974) theory of marriage formalized the notion of a marriage market and introduced concepts such as the “gains to marriage” and a specialized division of labor in the household. Mincer and Polachek (1974) developed a theory that connected the family behaviors of women to their earnings position in the labor market. Easterlin (1973) explained fertility swings as resulting from changes in preferences for children caused by changing income aspirations and labor market conditions of birth cohorts. Becker et al. (1977) discussed divorce in terms of costs and benefits, expected gains to partnerships, and the role of uncertainty and imperfect information.

    In this literature, marriage and divorce behavior was connected to changes in women's allocation of time between the market and the home. Concepts such as “comparative advantage” were invoked to explain gender differences in time allocation between home and market. The rise in women's labor force participation and the decline in fertility within marriage were discussed in terms of opportunity costs for women. Children were discussed as “consumer” or “producer” durables, requiring investment to realize current and future utility. Much of the legacy of this theoretical development remains in the lexicon of terms used to discuss family demographic change.

    Economic theory was particularly influential in the analysis and interpretation of the rise in female employment and its possible connection to marriage and fertility behavior. Women's increased education and rising employment were seen as increasing the likelihood of divorce and reducing fertility. Labor market experience raised the value of women's time spent in the labor market and hence the cost (in terms of forgone wages) of spending time outside the labor market raising children. It also contributed to divorce because it eroded the complementarity of what men and women brought to marriage (Becker et al. 1997). Marriages, it was argued, were most likely to be formed and least likely to be dissolved when each partner saw an advantage to being married over remaining single. When a woman's comparative advantage in the home relative to the market was greater than her husband's, the couple would allocate more of her time to the home and his to the market, and both would have much to gain in marriage and much to lose upon divorce.

    The economic theory of labor market search was also suggested as a theory for understanding delayed marriage (Oppenheimer 1988). With increased investment in schooling and poor prospects for labor market entrants, more recent cohorts of young men were taking longer to get established in the labor market, thereby increasing the uncertainty as to what kinds of economic providers they would eventually be. This extended the period between reaching adulthood and entering a first marriage.

    As Lundberg and Pollak (1996) note, the common preference model served as the basis for economic theorizing about the family in economics at least until the model began to be challenged in the 1980s. The notion was that family members acted as though they were maximizing a single, shared utility function. Although the theorists acknowledged that family members might have divergent preferences, they minimized the problems this assumption afforded by postulating that a family had an altruistic head who allocated resources to members in such a way as to achieve their cooperation in maximizing a single utility function (Becker 1991). Income was pooled and then allocated to maximize family well-being. What happened within families was more or less a black box: Income flowed in and then families efficiently allocated resources to the purchase of goods and services, the consumption of leisure, and the production of children, all in accord with a common, shared preference for optimal family output.

    Economic theories of the family were influential because they seemed to provide a conceptually elegant way of thinking about family behaviors, especially expenditure patterns and labor supply. However, like the family life-cycle concept, many aspects of the theory ultimately proved too limited theoretically and too tautologous to be useful for the analysis of family behavior (Lundberg and Pollak 1996). Hence this abstraction of family functioning has come under increased scrutiny for failing to theorize adequately situations in which adults within families have different and conflicting preferences. Empirical evidence showing that money is spent differently depending on who controls it, with more allocated to children's needs when women control a greater share, casts doubt on the income-pooling and single-utility-function framework. Empirical work has also raised questions about the strength of the causal role of women's economic independence in the movement away from marriage (Oppenheimer 1997; Sayer and Bianchi 2000). Bargaining models arising out of game-theoretic approaches to economic behavior are increasingly favored by some economists who analyze family behaviors (Lundberg and Pollak 1996).

    However, many of the concepts and other aspects of Becker's (1981) framework remain firmly ingrained in the study of family economic behavior. For example, part of the calculus involved in selecting a mate no doubt does include the weighing of costs and benefits of a particular marriage, just as a cost-benefit calculus must also figure into decisions about exiting marriage. The notion of opportunity costs connected to the expenditure of time remains useful. Women (and men) who allocate time to the labor market have less time to allocate to the home. Although perhaps too narrowly economic, the notion that actors behave in certain ways to realize their preferences, within a budget constraint, helps to conceptualize family decisions as purposive, rational behavior of actors operating within conditions of uncertainty and constraint. The economic perspective thus has introduced a rigor of thinking into the family demographic literature, as well as attention to measurement issues such as sampling selectivity and unmeasured variables, that has enhanced empirical analysis and thinking about family demographic change.

    A Note on Data and Family Terminology

    In developing the empirical examination of trends in family behaviors we present in this volume, the data sources we have relied upon most heavily are the family data collected annually in the March supplements to the Current Population Survey (CPS). The CPS is conducted monthly by the U.S. Bureau of the Census, and in March of each year detailed family composition and family economic data are ascertained. The data gathered in this unbroken series of collection periods, dating from the late 1940s, have become, along with the data in the decennial U.S. Census of Population, the main data used by demographers who chart family living arrangements in the United States.

    U.S. households and families comprise a wide variety of living arrangements, and to discuss them, we need to establish some standard definitions of key concepts. Given our reliance on data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau, it would be useful to begin with an introduction to the specific ways in which that agency uses family terminology (see Bryson and Casper 1998). A household can contain one or more people—everyone living in a housing unit makes up a household. In most cases, the person who owns or rents the residence is known as the householder. For the purposes of examining family and household composition, the Census Bureau defines two broad types of households: family and nonfamily. A family household has at least two members related by blood, marriage, or adoption, one of whom is the householder. A family consists of all related people in a family household. The term nonfamily household is used to describe either a person living alone or a household in which the householder lives only with nonrelatives.

    A family household can be maintained by a married couple or by a man or woman with no spouse in the home and may or may not include children. In contrast, a nonfamily household can be maintained only by a man or woman with no relatives at home. Prior to 1980, Census Bureau terminology referred to household members as primary individuals (if they were householders or related to the householder) and secondary individuals (if they lived in the household of someone to whom they were not related by marriage, blood, or adoption). Children include sons and daughters by birth, stepchildren, and adopted children of the householder regardless of the children's ages or marital statuses.

    When we want to assess the different types of families and households and how they have changed, we look at the composition of households and families. When we want to know about the relationships and characteristics of persons in households, we examine the living arrangements of individuals. For example, if we wanted to know about children and families, we could ask the question, How many families have children? But we could also ask, How many children live in families? In the first case we are interested in family composition; in the second, we are interested in living arrangements.

    If one reads the literature, one finds many suggestions about how families should be defined and what living arrangements should be classified as families. For example, Popenoe (1993), who is so concerned about family decline, argues for defining the family as “a relatively small domestic group of kin (or people in a kinlike relationship) consisting of at least one adult and one dependent person” (p. 529). He notes that many would not agree with his definition because it excludes married childless couples. Ryder (1987:117) argues for defining the family as two or more persons, each of whom is married to, a parent of, or a child of another member of the coresident group. This is actually quite close to the Census Bureau's working definition of a family group, which is a count of family households plus related subfamilies (i.e., families within families, either married couples or parent-child units living in a family household) and unrelated subfamilies who live in someone else's household. However, this definition still leaves out some potential family members, such as married partners.

    Cohabitation presents the biggest challenge to Census Bureau definitions of households and families because, by definition, those cohabiting have not entered into legal marriage. If parents are not married to each other, one will be classified as a nonrelative under Census Bureau definitions even when both live with their biological children in the same household. As we discuss in Chapter 2, cohabitation obscures the distinction between one- and two-parent families as well as the dichotomy between family and nonfamily households.

    In the family history literature, there is also a somewhat different classification of family that emphasizes whether household groups are nuclear or extended. A nuclear family consists of a conjugal couple and their children. More complex living arrangements are variously named and described. For example, Steven Ruggles (1994) classifies households that include kin other than spouses or children as extended households. He also uses the term fragmentary to include nonfamily households and single-parent households with no other kin. We include data on multigenerational households in Chapter 1 but restrict our examination of extended families to those that contain two or more generations of adults.

    Demographic data have strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand, large data sets allow researchers to monitor family change on both national and state levels and to estimate the characteristics of even very small populations (e.g., cohabitors, single fathers) with a high degree of accuracy. The quality of federal data is also generally highly regarded. On the other hand, such large surveys are expensive, and cost constraints often prohibit collection of the more detailed information that researchers need to conduct in-depth research investigating causal mechanisms. Public funds allow agencies such as the Census Bureau, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the National Center for Health Statistics to undertake massive data collection efforts. When budgets are lean, agencies are sometimes forced to cut back on the numbers or types of questions they ask. Entire data collection efforts, most notably vital statistics data collection on marriage and divorce, have fallen prey to budget cuts.

    Another consideration for statistical agencies is the maintenance of the comparability of data over time. As time passes, some concepts become outdated, and although it might seem to make sense to change the way a question is asked, the need to maintain a consistent series of estimates may take precedence. If a survey is altered, one cannot be certain whether any observed change in the data is due to a change in the population or to a change in the survey. Many such surveys are used to monitor trends that have significant and far-reaching impacts, such as the unemployment rate. Wall Street routinely relies on the accuracy of this information to conduct business. Just imagine the problems that could be caused if a multimillion-dollar decision were made based on a change in the unemployment rate that occurred solely because someone changed the wording of a question.

    From time to time, surveys also become politicized because Congress mandates the inclusion or deletion of questions on specific topics. For example, the 2000 Census long form included three new questions on grandparents raising grandchildren due to requirements of welfare reform legislation. The marital status question was deleted from the short form because there is no existing law or regulation that depends for its enforcement on the gathering of this information.

    In this book we focus primarily on trends in the past two decades because recent trends are less well-known, trends for earlier periods are documented elsewhere (e.g., in the 1980 Census monograph on the family by Sweet and Bumpass [1987], and in Cherlin's 1992 book on trends in marriage and divorce), and comparable data on a variety of family behaviors are plentiful. However, we shift our focus when it seems necessary to examine a longer or shorter time frame in order to understand and interpret recent change. The trends we document have different starting and ending points because the limited availability of some data and the lack of comparability of other data dictate the comparisons we can make. At times we would have preferred to use earlier or more recent data to extend our trends, but that wasn't always possible. The Current Population Survey is not readily available for original analyses before the mid-1970s;1 many of our comparisons use data from 1978, 1988, and 1998.

    Whenever possible, we have used printed historical data from the Census Bureau supplemented with data from other surveys or other researchers to fill in the gaps. We use different sources of data collected by the Census Bureau, such as the Survey of Income and Program Participation, and the decennial census as well as supplemental vital statistics (information on marriages, divorces, birthrates, and death rates) to document family demographic trends, changes in family structure and living arrangements, and the growing diversity of families.

    Choices of Topics and Organization of This Volume

    Our main purpose in this book is to provide an overview of the social demography of families and households in the United States. We seek to paint a comprehensive picture of U.S. families and households and the family-related behaviors of individuals. In doing so, we attempt to document how and why families have changed over the years. We also strive to place family change within the larger context of other social, demographic, and economic changes. Finally, we seek to demonstrate how changes in family behaviors give rise to new social issues and family-related social problems.

    In Chapter 1 we discuss the sweeping changes in demographic, social, and economic events that have been linked to changes in family structure and living arrangements, highlighting how these changes are associated with increasing diversity among American families. We address how changes in family composition and demographic trends may be related to other cultural, economic, and sociological shifts in society, such as the sexual revolution, the women's movement, and the emergence of the aging of the population. In each of the subsequent chapters, we focus in more detail on subjects of particular interest to family demographers in the past two decades.

    Chapter 2 focuses on cohabitation. Increases in cohabitation have been noted by the Census Bureau since it began tabulating the relevant data in 1960. The measures used to document this trend are outdated, however. In Chapter 2 we use data from the Current Population Survey to provide new and improved estimates of the increases in cohabitation in the 1980s and 1990s and discuss the meaning of cohabitation within a family context. Drawing on the findings of other research and analysis of the National Survey of Families and Households, we also investigate the relationships among marriage, divorce, fertility, and cohabitation.

    Chapter 3, authored by Martin O'Connell, chief of the Fertility and Family Statistics Branch of the U.S. Bureau of the Census, is devoted to trends in childbearing. The fertility level of American women in the past two decades has remained at an unusually low and unusually stable level, slightly below replacement fertility compared with the cyclical patterns exhibited during most of the 20th century. This lull in fertility swings belies some important transformations in the character of the American family and in the experiences of children who are born into families of widely differing household compositions. Identifying the concerns of women in different socioeconomic groups toward childbearing offers a prospective view of the future of the family that can highlight the current diversity of American households.

    In Chapter 4 we turn to the topic of single-mother families. In this chapter we use data from the Current Population Survey to document the rapid growth in mother-child families in the 1960s and 1970s, the continued but slower growth from the 1980s through the mid-1990s, and the stabilization that has occurred since then. We describe how entry into single parenting has changed over time, with widowhood being the primary cause of entry into single parenting early in the 20th century; the dramatic increase in divorce accounting for the rapid growth of single parenting in the 1960s and 1970s; and the delay in marriage and shift toward childbearing outside marriage creating more never-married mothers among single parents of the 1980s and 1990s. We document the economic well-being of single mothers and discuss how welfare reform has affected single mothers and their children.

    Chapter 5 focuses on fathering, a topic that is increasingly engaging the interest of family scholars. In searching for ways to strengthen the American family, researchers and policy makers have turned their attention to fathers and fathering. In this chapter we use CPS (Current Population Survey) and SIPP (Survey of Income and Program Participation) data to examine three types of fathers: single, noncustodial, and married. We begin with a discussion of the increase in single-father families based on the Current Population Survey, but go on to describe what we know about absent, nonresident fathers. We also provide new data on married fathers' time with children and mothers' and fathers' views about father involvement with children.

    In Chapter 6 we address grandparenting. Many more grandchildren are living with grandparents today than was the case a quarter of a century ago. We open this chapter with a discussion of how changes in mortality, fertility, and immigration changed grandparenthood over the course of the 20th century. Then we use data from the Current Population Survey to document the composition of households that included grandparents in 1997 to describe who seems to be supporting whom in these families and how they fare economically. We also discuss differences in grandparenting styles and the amount and quality of contact between generations.

    In Chapter 7 we take up the important topic of child care. The demand for child care has increased dramatically in recent decades, due in part to the increase in labor force participation of mothers with young children and in part to Americans' growing desire to educate children at younger ages. In this chapter we use data from the Census of Service Industries and the Survey of Income and Program Participation to document trends such as increases in the number of child-care centers, changes in the child-care arrangements parents choose for their children, and increases in the costs of child care since the 1980s. We also address such issues as what types of families use which types of care, how many “latchkey kids” there are, and how work schedules and other factors such as family income and family size affect the types of child care families choose. We draw on the research literature to discuss what is known about the quality, accessibility, and affordability of child care. We close the chapter with a discussion of how child care affects the well-being of children and their families.

    In Chapter 8 we focus on child well-being, the issue that has sparked more heated debate about family change than any other. We use children as the unit of analysis and examine indicators of child well-being. We discuss the changing family living arrangements of children in the United States and also examine trends in children's economic security, educational performance, and health and risk-taking behaviors. We also include information on how children spend their time and the activities in which they engage. We present new data collected in the Survey of Income and Program Participation on children's participation in extracurricular activities, TV viewing and family rules about TV, and activities that parents do with children, such as reading to them.

    Chapter 9 addresses the economic causes and consequences of changing family structure. American families are much more diverse than in the past, and some changes have resulted in increasing economic inequality among families. In this chapter we examine income differences among different household types, assessing the relative income advantage of dual-earning, two-parent families and the disadvantage of single-parent families. We use unique SIPP data on couples to document the changes in income for men, women, and children who experience marital disruption and provide a review of the literature on the economic consequences of divorce.

    Finally, in Chapter 10 we focus on how men and women, especially parents, combine paid work and family responsibilities. Increases in women's labor force participation have meant that many more families today are being confronted with the challenge of combining work and family than was the case in the past. We explore trends in the labor force participation of married and single mothers, showing convergence between the two groups as married mothers' rates have increased rapidly. We also draw on time-use data to show trends in housework, documenting the decline in hours spent on housework by women, especially employed women, and the modest increase among men. Finally, we review the growing literature on how parents with jobs and children balance competing time demands.

    Our goal in this volume is to provide enough detailed data to answer the “who,” “what,” and “where” questions about family change. We then attempt to place the discussion of family diversity and family change in the context of social, demographic, and economic change to begin to suggest answers to the “why” and “how” questions. As families change, societies are transformed. Taking stock of the family transformations of the latter part of the 20th century seems particularly useful as we try to assess family well-being and gauge the likely future of family behaviors in the 21st century.


    1. Data for earlier years are not comparable for family measures.

  • Conclusion

    We began this volume with a description of a wedding, an event uniting a couple and bringing together a group of kin with a complex history of relationships. Our purpose was to illustrate that family relationships are diverse and multifaceted; families are groups of individuals knit together by overlapping histories, interconnections, and obligations. We asked how families had changed in the second half of the 20th century, focusing specifically on the past two decades, and entertained notions about what might have precipitated those changes. We outlined our approach in the introduction and discussed the broad societal shifts that formed the context for family change in the first chapter of this volume. In subsequent chapters, we covered a wealth of material. Perhaps the best way to conclude a book on the American family is to revisit several of the questions that motivated us at the outset.

    One topic that has captured the attention of family demographers in the past decade is that of cohabitation, the topic taken up in Chapter 2. Perhaps the most important question about cohabitation is, What does the growth in cohabitation mean for the future of marriage? We would argue that it means relatively little if cohabitation is merely becoming a phase or a “space” that people typically occupy on their way to forming a first marriage or entering a remarriage. And certainly for many individuals, particularly those at higher socioeconomic levels, this appears to be what is happening. Most still eventually marry and delay having children until they do so. Children are still most often raised in marriage. The interesting question is whether cohabitation is being used differently—and whether it increasingly means something quite different—in poor and minority families, where it may more often be a substitute for rather than a precursor to marriage. And if it is being used as a substitute for marriage among low-income, less educated groups and minorities, is it a much weaker mechanism for obligating fathers to the care and support of their children?

    A related question is whether there is a decoupling of marriage and childbearing under way. There certainly seems to be less pressure to marry before the birth of a premaritally conceived child, as evidenced by trends discussed in Chapter 3. But the eschewing of marriage before childbearing in the United States is not so extreme as in some other countries, such as Sweden. Again, the interesting question is whether this decoupling is occurring with equal probability for all socioeconomic, race, and ethnic groups. For example, as college-educated women delay childbearing, they have higher nonmarital fertility than in the past, yet most of their childbearing still takes place within marriage. This seems to be less true among less educated women (Martin 2000). And black women are much more likely than other women to forgo marriage and to have nonmarital births.

    As the relationship between marriage and childbearing undergoes change, what happens to intergenerational linkages and extended family members' roles in the family? There is no question, as we have shown in Chapter 4, that more women will experience single parenting while raising children than a generation ago. When single parenting occurs, grandparents often provide support, and we have documented the increase in grandparents' involvement in rearing grandchildren in Chapter 6. Bengtson (2001) has recently argued that intergenerational family obligations and support may be increasing in importance, given some of the changes that seem to be permanently altering family life. For example, although the divorce rate stopped increasing two decades ago, it did not subsequently drop back to the low levels it was at prior to its steep increase in the latter 1960s and 1970s. Nonmarital childbearing, even if stabilizing, remains high. These trends, combined with increased longevity and the important role relatives play as backup caregivers in families (as documented in Chapter 7) suggest that much more attention must be paid to the ties that bind families across households and generations.

    How do families balance paid work and child rearing in the United States? The short answer is “with difficulty,” yet they seem to manage to do it. U.S. fertility rates remain at replacement levels across cohorts, unlike in most European contexts, where fertility is declining and is well below replacement (Frejka and Calot 2001). In the United States, despite the increase in mothers' labor force participation, mothers still provide a large proportion of the care for young children. Only one-third of married mothers with children under age 6 work full-time and year-round. U.S. families increasingly use child-care centers, patch together care by relatives, and use enrichment activities for older children, perhaps to a far greater extent than has been acknowledged (as documented in Chapter 7). There is clearly a need for higher-quality child care, particularly if we expect all single mothers, even low-income mothers, to be employed when children are young. In the absence of much government and employer support for combining work and family—certainly less than in most Scandinavian countries—American families appear to “make do” and arrive at private, individualized solutions to the inherent time conflicts between market work and care of family (as we have discussed in Chapter 10). However, pressure may be mounting for more public recognition of the difficulties involved and for more support for parents faced with the dilemma of how to financially support their families adequately and still provide sufficient time for their children.

    Are fathers' roles within families changing? Our answer is an unqualified yes. We can argue over the pace of change—whether fathers are doing enough on the home front or changing fast enough—but we have presented a variety of evidence in Chapter 5 that men's roles are changing. Again, the most important questions have to do with the pace of change and whether father involvement varies by socioeconomic status, race, and ethnic group. That is, are some fathers moving toward increased involvement with children while others are eschewing their responsibilities altogether? Do these “good dads” and “bad dads” align with race and class? We suspect not, at least not totally, although increased feelings that they should spend time with their children may be most characteristic of college-educated fathers. However, economic conditions (e.g., lack of resources for expensive child care) may also push lower-income, less educated men toward child rearing and, indeed, these men may always have had greater involvement in the family than we have heretofore appreciated. Black and Hispanic men face a greater challenge in being “good dads” than do white men mainly because so many more of them do not live with their children. In addition, they have more difficulty in the labor market and hence find it harder to fulfill the “good provider” role.

    The question that has most concerned family scholars is, Has children's well-being been compromised by changes in the family? Much has been made of the lower level of well-being, on average, of children who grow up with one rather than two parents in the household (a topic addressed in Chapter 8). Yet some of these effects are quite small, with most children in both types of households performing well academically and exhibiting good social-psychological adjustment. Children's lives are clearly altered by the changed circumstances of families: Children today grow up differently than in the past. Yet it is unclear whether their lives are worse or better than the lives of children a generation ago. Some trends (e.g., alcohol and drug use) appear problematic, whereas others (e.g., increased parental time) suggest that children may be doing better than in the past. Again, an important and unanswered question is whether greater inequality separates the life chances of minority children and children at the bottom and the top of the income distribution more so than in the past.

    What surprised us most as we reexamined family trends in preparation for writing this book was how little change was occurring in some of the standard indicators of family structure in the latter half of the 1990s (as shown in Chapter 1). So, for example, the long-discussed rise of the single-mother family and decline of the two-parent family—trends that many have argued seriously compromise children's well-being—seemed largely to have halted in the latter half of the 1990s, if only temporarily. In fact, as this book went into production in the middle of 2001, the Census Bureau had just released its latest statistics on the family, heralding a slight rise in the proportion of families with two-parents, the first such rise in decades. Nonmarital birthrates stabilized (even declined slightly) in the latter half of the 1990s, and living arrangements that continued to increase in popularity, such as cohabitation, seemed to be doing so at a decreasing rate.

    This seeming “quieting” of family change interests us a great deal because it seems to have been largely ignored by much of the scientific community, and certainly in the rhetoric of policy makers. Have we merely hit a temporary lull in family change, perhaps due to the good economic conditions of the second half of the 1990s? Or have the transformations that so altered family formation and dissolution largely worked themselves out such that we can expect much more family stability in the future?

    Our guess is the following: If one looks at the trends in the family that disturbed so many academics and policy makers—the increase in births outside marriage, increasing divorce, more single parenting—the large upswing happened during the 1970s, as discussed in Chapter 1. Change continued in subsequent decades, but at a slowing rate until the 1990s, when it slowed so much that it stopped. If the economy turns sour, there may be some small upswing in single parenting. Economic stress is destabilizing. However, a major change to affect the family in the latter part of the 20th century was the expansion of equal access to educational and occupational opportunity to women and minorities. The march toward equality is an ongoing project, but we have now had almost 40 years to adjust and to redefine appropriate gender relations within and outside the family.

    The revolution of inclusiveness in the labor market rocked the family in the United States and elsewhere. Other factors also buffeted the family, the most important of which is perhaps the aging of society and the implications this has had for intergenerational relationships. Continued improvement in per capita material affluence of the population and increased educational upgrading also aided a revolution in expectations about how family life should work. If one returns to the notion we raised in our introduction, that the family is a complex set of gender and intergenerational relationships, one could argue that what most changed the family in the second half of the 20th century was the movement of women, especially mothers, into the paid labor force.

    What is still changing in the family are behaviors related to the continued evolution of new gender relations within the family (see Chapter 10) and the intergenerational ties that result from changed gender relations in an aging society (see Chapter 6). Marriages continue to be delayed more so than forgone, at least among the majority of the population, because for many it makes sense to do so. Both women and men assume they will have labor force careers. Increasingly, those who are successful have more education. Parents' ability to provide their children with college educations as part of child rearing is increasing, and children's sense of entitlement to such education funded by their parents is also on the rise. Hence it is perhaps not surprising that financial dependency in young adulthood is extended and the period of experimentation with living arrangements, jobs, and relationships that might have ended by the late teens or early 20s for past cohorts now lasts well beyond those years for many in the population.

    Women's greater access to education and jobs affected them first—they changed their behavior—and this now seems to be affecting men (see Chapter 5). Men generally seem to be changing their behavior toward families, increasing their participation in household work a little and their involvement with children a lot. But this type of change is slow and probably occurs across generations more than across individual life spans. Married fathers' time with children is increasing; the numbers of single-father families continue to rise, although they constitute only a small portion of households with children; fathers seem to be sharing custody of their children more often after divorce; and public policy is attempting to strengthen the financial and parental ties between unmarried fathers and their children.

    Is family life so changed that what women do in families no longer resembles what their mothers did, and what fathers do is totally different from what their own fathers did for their families? No—women continue to devote more time to child rearing than do men, and most men continue to value and be valued for the financial support they can provide their families. But these relationships are changing toward more gender similarity, and in the process they are transforming what marriages look and feel like in contemporary society. At the same time, they circumscribe somewhat who chooses marriage for companionship, economic security, child rearing, and fulfillment of life's needs.

    Our view is admittedly a rather sanguine, optimistic one. We see families as continuing to transform, sometimes with negative consequences, but usually in ways that make sense given changing contexts. For example, would a marriage system that has people entering at age 20 or 21 make sense today? Probably not, given that so many young adults have not completed their schooling or established themselves in the labor market by that age.

    The most disturbing trend in the family may be that family behaviors may be bifurcating or becoming more dissimilar along economic and racial lines, but even this is not totally clear. There is some indication that there may be increasing nonmarriage and lack of involvement of both parents in raising children at the bottom of the income distribution as the economic fortunes of those at the bottom grow further from those at the top (a topic discussed in Chapter 9). However, we do not know a lot about what is causing this trend, and we know virtually nothing about the inter-generational consequences. In other ways, things have become more similar across the economic spectrum. Women's labor force behavior—the combining of motherhood and market work—has become less differentiated by economic position, as market work is increasingly defined as normative and necessary for all women regardless of class, race, or ethnicity.

    In this volume we have painted with a broad brush, describing the family “on average.” We view this as a necessary first step. Were we now to proceed to a second book, we would examine the race, ethnic, and class variation in each of the topics we have addressed, assess the differential effects of each of these components on family change, and place them in international context. We have done that occasionally in this volume but not systematically, because that has not been our primary focus. However, given the rise in income inequality in the past decades in the United States, the large influx of immigrants in the last quarter of the 20th century and the resulting racial and ethnic diversity of the population, and the often parallel trends but quite different contexts of immigration and public policy in support of the family in other developed countries, we will disentangle many of the most interesting questions this volume has generated only by expressly examining the variation in the patterns we have observed, both inside and outside the United States.


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    About the Authors

    Lynne M. Casper received her PhD in demography and sociology from Pennsylvania State University in 1992. She is currently Health Scientist Administrator and Demographer in the Demographic and Behavioral Sciences Branch at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). She has primary responsibility for research portfolios in the areas of family and households, cohabitation, child care, and fatherhood. She is also director of NICHD's training program in population studies and is program officer for many national data collection efforts. Her current research focuses on the meaning of cohabitation and how cohabitors view themselves. She has published numerous scholarly articles in the areas of families and households, cohabitation, fatherhood, child care, voting, and demographic methods. She previously spent 7 years as a Demographer and Statistician in the Fertility and Family Statistics Branch at the U.S. Bureau of the Census, where she was senior analyst for the families and households, child care, and voting programs. She has authored nearly a dozen Census Bureau Current Population Reports. She was awarded former Vice President Al Gore's Hammer Award for her work on fatherhood with the Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics. She is currently a member of the NICHD Family and Child Well-Being Research Network and the Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics.

    Suzanne M. Bianchi received her PhD in sociology from the University of Michigan in 1978. She is currently Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center on Population, Gender, and Social Inequality at the University of Maryland and also an affiliate faculty member of the Women's Studies Department and the School of Public Affairs. Prior to taking her current position, she was a Demographer with the U.S. Bureau of the Census for 15 years and served as Assistant Chief for Social and Demographic Statistics in the Bureau's Population Division in 1993–94. She is currently directing research projects on American families' use of time and investigating inequality in parental investments in children. She is a noted expert on changing gender roles and has published two books on American women's work and family lives. Her recent publications explore the interrelationship between maternal employment and time with children; women's financial status and the probability of divorce; the gender division of housework; the relationships among marriage, children, and women's employment; the feminization and juvenilization of poverty; the economic well-being of nonresident fathers and custodial mothers; and children's use of time. She was guest editor of a special volume of Demography devoted to men in families in 1998. She served as President of the Population Association of America in 2000 and has chaired the Population and Family Sections of the American Sociological Association.

    Martin O'Connell received his PhD in demography from the University of Pennsylvania in 1975. Since 1976, he has worked for the U.S. Bureau of the Census and is currently Chief of the Fertility and Family Statistics Branch. In this position, he directs all Census Bureau data collection, processing, analysis, and dissemination of data related to families and households, fertility, child well-being, and child care. These data are collected primarily in the Census Bureau's demographic surveys: the Current Population Survey, the Survey of Income and Program Participation, the American Community Survey, the Survey of Program Dynamics, and the decennial censuses. His current research concentrates on child-care and maternity leave issues and their relationship to labor force participation. Among his other continuing research interests are birth expectations, fertility projections, and out-of-wedlock childbearing. In the areas of child care and the labor force, he has published articles on the effects of employment cycles on parental child-care roles, maternity leave arrangements, child-care arrangements, and the consequential balancing acts in which working parents must engage. His research regarding out-of-wedlock births includes both methodological problems of demographic estimation and the relationship of such births to family formation and dissolution. He has also published several studies on the validity of birth expectations data for long- and short-term population projections.

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