Farewell to the Family?

Marriage Divorce Remarriage

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

What's Happening to the American Family

by Sar A. Levitan and Richard S. Belous
Johns Hopkins University Press, 224 pp., $16.50; $5.95 (paper)

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 and Elizabeth Douvan and 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”…

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