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Farewell to the Family?

A parallel case may be cited concerning the current generation. For a time, the rising percentage of women in professional schools was accommodated by expanding enrollments. That is, no men were turned away to let more women in. However, that has changed within the last five years. Between 1976 and 1981, the number of men in the nation’s law schools fell from 90,259 to 83,351, while total enrollments rose by only 7.2 percent.9 This means that more than seven thousand men were rejected and those seats filled by women. The same is happening in business, medicine, and other professional fields. An augury of things to come may be contained in the title of a Savvy article, “Where are the Men for Women at the Top?”

Still, it would be a mistake to overstate the extent—and thus the impact—of married women’s employment. Belonging to the “labor force” means less than meets the eye. You are counted in that group if you “did any work at all”—one hour’s worth will do—during any given week. You are also included if you are unemployed and looking for a new job, or have been laid off and are waiting to be recalled. Finally, you are counted if you have not been working at all but say you are looking for even a part-time job. So it was under this generous definition that 50.3 percent of all wives were said to be in the labor force as of March of 1980. In fact many of them are not employed or worked for only part of the year, often at part-time jobs. The most recent figures on working wives are for 1979, and they are rather revealing.

Among married couples where the husband was employed (thus excluding unemployed men and men who are retired), 35.9 percent of the wives did not work at all; another 27.9 percent had year-round full-time employment; and the remaining 36.2 percent had part-time jobs or worked for only part of the year. Thus while one can say that 64.1 percent of these wives put in some work, only 43.6 percent of them did so on a steady basis.10 And many of those were wives in marriages that did not yet include children.

For all working wives, median earnings amounted to $6,336 in 1979, and their contribution to total family income came to 26.9 percent. In those cases where a wife and her husband were both year-round full-time workers, her median earnings were $10,199, which contributed 34.7 percent of the family’s earnings. Among couples with one or more children under eighteen, 60.0 percent of the wives put in some work during the year, but it could not have been very extensive since their median income came to only $5,368. Finally, among all working wives, with or without children, only 9.1 percent made more than $15,000 in 1979. These figures raise some questions about the degree to which working on the part of wives contributes to discord, let alone divorce. While more married women are certainly working, it does not appear that the jobs they tend to hold are a large part of their lives.

III

The future of the family will depend heavily on what happens concerning children. While they are not yet out of style, there are considerably fewer of them than there used to be. Between 1970 and 1980, the number of youngsters aged fourteen or under declined by 6,563,000. During the decade there was a net natural growth (births in excess of deaths) of only 14,003,000. It took the arrival of 9,209,000 immigrants to bring the population increase to 23,293,000, its 11.5 percent rise.

Nor should too much be read into the fact that more women in their thirties are starting to have children. While their doing so has helped to nudge up the birthrate, many of them will probably stop at one. However, it will require a lot more babies than that to keep a balanced population, for the survival rate of the aged is growing even faster. Equally interesting are expectations involving future births. A census study conducted in June of 1980 found that for each 1,000 women between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four, a total of 1,127 babies had already been born and the women said they expected to have 932 more.11 This adds up to approximately 2.06 children per potential mother, somewhat less than the no-growth replacement rate of 2.2 per mother. However, among younger women who still were single, the overall expectation was only 1.8 per person. Even more striking, as many as 21.4 percent of these single women said they expected to have no offspring at all. Their predictions could reflect fantasy as well as considered judgments. Still, that percentage, even if only an “expectation,” deserves serious attention.

Economic and career reasons are obviously at work here. Women on the rise feel they may forfeit promotions if they take time off for having children; there is never a “right time” for an extended leave of absence. Families that once had three children are shifting down to two, or from two to one, for reasons of economy. And the availability of abortions and sterilizations makes it possible to stop when you want to. But the financial aspect is only one factor. Children are still touchstones by which their parents are judged. This attitude comes across in the volume The Inner American, in which Joseph Veroff and his colleagues analyze changes in values over a recent twenty-year period. What did not alter was the desire to be known as a successful parent:

When men and women are asked to think about how they want to be regarded in their social world, most of them clearly chose a reputation for excellence in their family roles over high regard as a worker.

Indeed, about the worst thing that can be said of most people who have done well professionally is that they have failed as parents. Fear of such accusations may have caused many younger people to be wary of starting families. In the past, couples who chose to remain childless were criticized as “selfish.” This happened not because they were refusing to bring joy to some never-to-be-born offspring. They were censured, rather, for preferring to enjoy themselves instead of helping to augment the next generation. The “selfish” argument is seldom heard today. Such pressure as childless couples feel comes chiefly from their own parents, who would like to have some grandchildren.

Raising children is obviously not as easy as it used to be. Veroff and his colleagues state in a formal way what every modern parent knows:

The positions of father or mother…have lost the element of power ascription. Children have come to expect rationalized authority and the possibility of participating in decisions…. Mothers have learned to listen harder for their child’s idiosyncratic feelings and goals in their desire to raise ideal children.

Parents, to put it simply, are uncertain about what they must do to have their children turn out well, let alone “ideal.” The children soon realize this lack of confidence and chip in their own ideas on proper parenthood. Christopher Lasch said it even better: “The child knows more about this ambiguous and constantly shifting practice [of how children grow up] than his parents do, and he skillfully exploits their uneasiness.”12 This seems closer to the mark than “power ascription” and “rationalized authority.”

Lasch and others have made much of two influences that work to undermine parenthood. First, there are the professionals who are assumed to know more about child rearing than parents ever can. They now include pediatricians and guidance counselors, nutritionists and athletic coaches, nursery school teachers and sex education experts. The second influence is of course the so-called “peer group,” to which the children belong and which exerts a stronger force than ever in the past. In books about the family these make a plausible pair of forces, with the professionals covering one flank while peer groups run the other. But anyone who has dealt with young people knows that more is going on.

All those pediatricians and others may cow parents with their warnings and advice. But the more important question concerns who influences the children. Even teachers have very little impact on the attitudes of their pupils. If they were “role models” in the past, they are much less so today. Students may or may not do their lessons; however, what happens in their classrooms has virtually no impact on the way they look at life. They may “like” certain teachers—or counselors or coaches—but that is about as far as it goes. What I am saying is that for the most part adults no longer have any significant sway over children. Even so, pointing to “peer groups” is not a sufficient explanation of the behavior of young people. While such groups may act as intermediaries, the sources of that behavior are more pervasive.

Over the past twenty years a phenomenon called “youth” has supplanted the period once known as adolescence. The latter was an interlude within one’s teens, in which those called adolescents awaited adulthood. It was often a painful span of years, with anxieties over acne and “being popular.” It typically had some minor rebellions, largely involving being home by midnight. Indeed, adolescents usually couldn’t wait to become adults. “Youth” is a much longer period, starting earlier and extending well into the twenties. And it is skeptical, even cynical, about the lives adults lead. In fact, youth may best be seen as a separate country, in which young people take out citizenship. That nation has a culture of its own which now reaches every hamlet. (Of course adults create and distribute most of its artifacts. But they can only sell their goods insofar as they respond to sentiments already there.)

If a single medium reflects the youthful view of life, it is not television or the movies, but popular music. Whether rock or disco or their sundry variations, it is a mode of expression—by and large subversive—cast in a secret language most parents cannot understand. Nor am I talking simply about freer attitudes toward sex and drugs and dress. Young people have chosen to dissociate large parts of themselves from the traditional social structure, including their own homes. And this includes even those who pass all the tests and aspire to professions. A navy blue blazer may have a joint in its pocket. What remains of the family has been eroded even further when children past the age of twelve act as if they are living somewhere else.

But one kind of family is flourishing, at least in growth. These are households with only one parent in residence. Of the 8,450,000 families headed by women, 5,918,000 (or 69.3 percent) contain at least one child under the age of eighteen. This represents a 71.7 percent rise from 1970, when 3,447,000 homes with children had women as their heads. (As it turns out, the number of solo fathers actually declined from 716,000 in 1970 to 609,000 in 1980.)

  1. 9

    Chronicle of Higher Education, June 15, 1981.

  2. 10

    Money Income of Families and Persons, Bureau of the Census, P-60, No. 129, November 1981.

  3. 11

    Fertility of American Women, Bureau of the Census, P-20, No. 364 August, 1981.

  4. 12

    Lasch, Haven in a Heartless World, p. 173.

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