Last Updated on June 7, 2023 by Karl Thompson
Three factors which can explain the increase in family and household diversity are:
- The impact of Feminism and changing gender roles
- Social policies
- Increasing individualisation with the shift to Late Modern society.
This is the second part of explaining these trends, you might also like to read the first part which covers the decline in marriage, postmodernisation and economic factors.
Feminism: Changing Gender Roles
Liberal Feminists and Late Modernists would point to the increasing number of women going into work as one of the most important underlying structural shifts in Late Modern Society.
The proportion of women in employment has risen from 52% in the early 1970s to 72% today, with women having closed the gap on men significantly over the last 40 years.
Rather than needing to depend on men for their financial independence, women are now much more likely to focus on building a career before ‘settling down’ and starting a family. This goes some way to explaining the increase in single person households. The increased earning power of women also explains the growth of the number of never-married women who choose to have babies on their own. While this only accounts for a relatively small proportion of single parent households, such numbers are increasing.
Women’s increased financial independence has also led to relationships becoming more fragile and thus helps explain the increase in single parent households and single person households following divorce.
Evaluation: It is important not to overstate the extent of ‘women’s liberation’ – In 2022, women accounted for 84 per cent of lone parents with dependent children and men the remaining 16 per cent. Women are more likely to take the main caring responsibilities for any children when relationships break down, and therefore become lone parents.
There are two important policies which lie behind many of the above changes – the 1969 Divorce Act and the 1972 Equal Pay Act.
In addition to the above, The New Right believe that overly generous welfare benefits have created an underclass in the UK, and a subsection of this underclass consists of teenage girls who choose to get pregnant in order to get a council house and live a comfortable life on welfare.
Evaluations (of the New Right): In reality, only 2% of single parents are teenagers, which is hardly a significant proportion compared to the overall numbers.
Also, it is not so much the benefits system which is to blame – The money is simply not enough to encourage someone to have a child to get housed – If you are on benefits, whether you have a child or not, you get enough to exist rather than to have a comfortable life. Also, Universal Credit encourages people into work today and the proposed changes to provide childcare for children as young as 9 months should accelerate this trend.
Late Modern Sociologists argue against Postmodernists. The increase in family diversity is not simply a matter of individuals having more freedom of choice and choosing to live alone or become a single parent, people are forced into these options because of structural changes making life more uncertain.
Firstly, most people don’t choose to live with their parents until they are 30, and most people don’t choose to live in a multigenerational household, they do so because they have to out of economic necessity.
Secondly, most people still want to get married and have children, but fewer people do so because of an increase in ‘risk consciousness’ – There is more uncertainty about what a ‘normal relationship’ is. Changing roles of men and women and changing expectations of relationships and family life result in young people being more reluctant to settle down in a classic long term relationship.
Thirdly, Ulrich Beck also talks about indivdualisation – a new social norm is that our individual desires are more important than social commitments, and this makes marriage less likely. People are more likely to go through a series of monogamous relationships (serial monogamy) – which means cohabiting for a few years and then back to living alone again and then so on.
Finally, Anthony Giddens argues that the typical type of relationship is the ‘pure relationship’… it exists solely to meet the partners’ needs and is likely to continue only so long as it succeeds. Couples stay together because of love, happiness of sexual attraction rather than for tradition or for the sake of the children. In short, we have increased expectations of marriage, and if it doesn’t work for us, then we get a divorce, increasing the amount of single person and single parent and then reconstituted families.
Other Factors Explaining the Increase in Family and Household Diversity
- Fewer people today are living in couples; there has been a big rise in the number of people living alone, and in 2022 almost three in ten households contained only one person. Half of all one person households are people of pensionable age. Many women in their 70s and 80s live alone simply because there are too few partners available in their age group – women marry men who are older than them and men die younger.
- The massive expansion in higher education has seen the number of undergraduate students triple since 1970, from 414,000 to well over a million in 2023: this means more young adults are not in work and economically dependent on their parents for longer.
Signposting and related posts
This material is relevant to the families and households module, and a good next post to read would be this: