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Farewell to the Family?

Marriage Divorce Remarriage

by Andrew J. Cherlin
Harvard University Press, 142 pp., $14.50

Singled Out: A Civilized Guide to Sex and Sensibility for the Suddenly Single Man or Woman

by Richard Schickel
Viking, 128 pp., $8.95

America Now: The Anthropology of a Changing Culture

by Marvin Harris
Simon & Schuster, 208 pp., $12.95

The Inner American: A Self-Portrait from 1957 to 1976

by Joseph Veroff, by Elizabeth Douvan, by Richard Kulka
Basic Books, 637 pp., $36.00

The Futility of Family Policy

by Gilbert Y. Steiner
Brookings Institution, 221 pp., $15.95; $5.95 (paper)

Friends as Family

by Karen Lindsey
Beacon, 282 pp., $14.50

Marital Status and Living Arrangements

Bureau of the Census, Current Population Reports Series P-20, No. 365
US Government Printing Office, 63 pp., $4.25

Household and Family Characteristics

Bureau of the Census, Current Population Reports Series P-20, No. 366
US Government Printing Office, 235 pp., $6.50

Money Income and Poverty Status of Families and Persons

Bureau of the Census, Current Population Reports Series P-60, No. 127
US Government Printing Office, 42 pp., $3.00


It is hardly news that families are not what they used to be. In fact, as Christopher Lasch put it, “the family has been slowly coming apart for more than a hundred years.”1 If that is so, its fragmentation is nothing sudden or new. Scholars can always find some century-old statement deploring the demise of hearth and home. At the same time others argue, as Mary Jo Bane did through her title, that the family is “Here to Stay.”2 For one thing, no one has come up with a serious substitute, whether Scandinavian communes or Chinese shared kitchens. It is also asserted that the forms families take have gone through many changes, so we should not be surprised—or upset—by current adaptations. Bane pointed out, for example, that in the past, death caused as many single-parent households as divorce does today.

Still, all is not well with the family. Far fewer people are willing to accept the constraints and obligations required for family ties. Such as the duty to stay together, even when a marriage proves less than ideal. Or that a couple should have children, at least two or preferably three, if the nation is to avert a declining population. What was once a third obligation has lost much of its force: maintaining relations and responsibilities toward a household’s aging members. As sociologists are fond of pointing out, families have served a useful purpose as agencies of control. Upon becoming husbands, wives, and parents, people could be counted on to be at certain places at specific times doing certain things. What has occurred is that now more people want more freedom than family life has allowed.

Several recent studies prepared in association with the 1980 census highlight what has been happening with households over the past decade. The census simply prints statistics, so changes can be noted with a measure of precision. Far from being chilly columns of figures, they tell a very human story. Moreover, they provide a factual backdrop against which the various books under review can be put in perspective.

According to the census, 97.5 percent of all Americans live in “households.” (This leaves 5,742,000 persons in “group quarters,” ranging from dormitories and barracks to hospitals and prisons.) Since the household is the basic element in census statistics, it is best to be clear on how the term is used. On the whole, households divide into two general categories:

Family households” consist of two or more persons living together who also are related by birth or marriage. The most common family household is still a married couple, with or without children at home. A single parent with one or more children also comes under the heading of a family household. (There can be other family variations, such as two sisters sharing a residence.)

Nonfamily households” include two or more unrelated persons, of the same or different sexes, sharing living quarters. However, the census also defines people who live by themselves as “single-person households” of the non-family kind. This means that young people with apartments of their own are no longer counted as part of their parents’ households.

—From 1970 to 1980, the total number of households rose from 63,401,000 to 79,108,000. This amounted to an increase of 24.8 percent, more than double the general population rise of 11.5 percent. During the decade the number of persons in the average household declined from 3.14 to 2.75. This drop was caused by there being fewer children in each family, more single-parent households, and—most important—more people living alone.

—During the decade, family households fell from 81.2 percent of the total to 73.9 percent. By the same token, nonfamily households rose from 18.8 percent of the total to 26.1 percent.

—The actual number of married couples increased by only 7.7 percent, one-third less than the general population rise. On the other hand, families with unmarried heads grew by 52.3 percent.

—By 1980, altogether 23.4 percent of all children aged seventeen or under were not living with both parents. They were instead living with one parent, another relative, or a nonrelative. This was the situation for 17.3 percent of white children and 57.8 percent of black children.

—In 1970, among couples with a husband under twenty-five, only 44.6 percent did not yet have any children. By 1980, the childless group had grown to 52.0 percent. And where the husband was between thirty and thirty-four, the proportion without children rose from 10.2 percent to 17.6 percent.

—“Nonfamily households,” taken together, increased from 11,919,000 to 20,682,000 between 1970 and 1980, a growth of 73.5 percent, which was more than six times that for the overall population.

—Altogether, 6,965,000 more people were living by themselves in 1980 compared with 1970. This increase came from several sources, all of them associated with the trend away from family living. First, young people are not only marrying later, but they are living on their own while single. Among those the census calls the “never married,” the number of men with residences of their own grew by 118.3 percent, while the comparable figure for women went up 89.3 percent.

—Equally striking is the increase in people who are separated or divorced and no longer live with their former mates. The number of men in this category rose by 121.8 percent, with the parallel figure for women 79.4 percent. The sexual discrepancy derives from the fact that when divorced and separated women have children they generally get custody. Given that arrangement, these women fall in the category of “single heads of families” whereas their former husbands are classed as “living alone.” (Some ex-husbands have new roommates, of which more later.)

—For some time now, more widowed men and women have been living by themselves rather than with their adult children. The number of widows living alone rose by 31.9 percent during the decade, with the figure for widowers up 16.4 percent. But these growth rates were not as sharp as those for the other groups.

—A total of 2,866,000 nonfamily households consisted of unrelated persons sharing quarters. This group broke down as follows: 25.1 percent were two men living together; 19.2 percent were two women; and 55.8 percent were mixed-sex arrangements. In this third group, 31.5 percent had children on the premises, in most cases from the woman’s previous marriage. Indeed, in only 37.2 percent of the mixed-sex households had both partners never been married. (These figures do not include people who spend a lot of time together but keep their own apartments.)

—In all, 1970 to 1980 saw the creation of 15,707,000 new households. Of these, 55.6 percent were of the nonfamily variety. And among the 44.4 percent which were counted as family households, there were 3,518,000 new ones with single heads as opposed to 3,452,000 containing married couples. This means that only 22.0 percent of total household growth came from couples who were married. Moreover, whereas in 1970 couples with two or more children accounted for 28.1 percent of all households, by 1980 they were down to 19.0 percent.

So much for the facts of family life—or flight from it—as the census charts them. We can now turn to some recent books that seek to interpret and explain what such statistics mean.

The best by far is Andrew Cherlin’s Marriage Divorce Remarriage, the first of a Harvard-sponsored series intended “to present to the general public recent scholarship on topics of broad interest and concern.” Cherlin’s review of research on the family is both clear and concise, especially where he outlines the issues in scholarly controversies. Thus he deals cogently with the debate arising from Richard Easterlin’s writings on why children raised during the Depression went on to have so many off-spring.3 In a similar vein, he explains the grounds for Charles Westoff’s conclusion that the three- and four-child family cannot possibly return, namely that the declining birthrate is a “longterm reality,” while the postwar baby boom was a “perplexing exception.”

Cherlin raises a great many questions. For example, he suggests that “the reasons why people marry at an older age now may well differ from the reasons why they did so in the early 1900s.” In the past young men were more apt to live at home and did not marry until they had saved enough for a down payment on a house. Now they wait until their middle twenties because staying single is more enjoyable. And once they do decide on marriage, whether they will stick it out depends much on how they compare its constrictions with the freedom of their bachelor days. Similarly, Cherlin points to studies showing that people who live together before marriage are more likely to divorce than couples who do not. Their having chosen to live together is evidence of their view “that a relationship should be ended if either partner is dissatisfied.”

Sar Levitan and Richard Belous would have written a better book had they pondered much of the research on which Cherlin’s study is based. But then I doubt whether it would have made much difference. What’s Happening to the American Family is sedulously upbeat, aimed at countering “fashionable gloom and doom scenarios” which predict “the imminent demise of the family.” Levitan and Belous offer buoyancy and cheer. They argue that “American families are changing, but they are not eroding…. The net result of recent events has been to make American family structure highly pluralistic.”

Truth to tell, I find this a curious term of description. Instead of the conventional family type, composed of husband, wife, and children, we now have “pluralism.” Well, perhaps. But for these writers, the pluralistic family could include a mother struggling to raise her kids without the father or his income. The family extends across town where dad has moved in with his new girlfriend, and to another state where grandmother, now widowed, has discovered that Social Security doesn’t cover all her bills. The book is decorated with cute cartoons, implying that the worst things such people face are amusing annoyances.

Pluralism in the domestic sphere also means we can look at divorce in a new light. Rather than a force for erosion, Levitan and Belous believe:

For both men and women, divorce seems to reflect the rejection more of a specific partner than of the institution of marriage…. Most divorced persons seek a new stable relationship…. Living as part of a family seems to be the preference of most adult Americans.

It is true that few people wish to live alone, or at least not for extended periods. But contrary to Levitan and Belous, our tendency to “reject specific partners” undercuts both marriage and the family as durable institutions. As Andrew Cherlin puts it, “husbands and wives are more likely today than in the past to evaluate their marriage primarily according to how well it satisfied their individual emotional needs.” Simply stated, his conclusion is that fewer people seem willing to make changes in their characters after they get married. They may want such benefits as they believe marriage will bring; but they also want to remain the same people they were before the wedding. Levitan and Belous may believe that “most divorced persons seek a new stable relationship,” but it often appears that they are seeking an arrangement neatly tailored to their “individual emotional needs.”

  1. 1

    Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged (Basic Books, 1979), p. xx.

  2. 2

    Here to Stay: American Families in the Twentieth Century (Basic Books, 1976).

  3. 3

    Richard A. Easterlin, Birth and Fortune: The Impact of Numbers on Personal Welfare (Basic Books, 1981), reviewed by Christopher Jencks, NYR, October 8, 1981.

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