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Evaluating the view that the nuclear family is in decline (part 3/3)

Some commentators argue that the extent of ever increasing family diversity has been exaggerated

Robert Chester – The Neo-Conventional Family

Robert Chester (1985) recognises that there has been some increased family diversity in recent years. However, unlike the new right, he does not regard this as very significant, nor does he see it in a negative light. Chester argues the only important change is a move from the dominance of the traditional or conventional nuclear family, to what he describes as the ‘neo conventional’ family.

The Conventional Family – (declining) The Traditional nuclear family with ‘segregated conjugal roles’ – Male breadwinner and female homemaker.

The Neo-Conventional Family (the new norm) – a dual-earner family in which both spouses go out to work – similar to the symmetrical family of Young and Wilmott

Chester argues that most people are not choosing to live in alternatives to the nuclear family (such as lone parent families) on a long term basis and the nuclear family remains the ideal to which most people aspire. He argues that many people living alone have been or one day will be part of the nuclear family. Chester identifies a number of patterns that support his view:

  • Most children are still reared for most of their lives by their two natural parents
  • Most marriages still continue until death.
  • Cohabitation has increased, but for most couples it is a temporary phase before marrying.
  • Some ethnic groups are very likely to live in nuclear family households – Pakistani and Bangladeshi especially.

Pat Thane – A Historical Perspective on the ‘myth of the nuclear family’

This is a slightly different criticism to Chester – rather than criticising the idea that the nuclear family is in decline, Pat Thane challenges the idea that the nuclear family was ever the ‘norm’ in the first place. 

Family diversity was the norm up until world war two, then there was a brief period of thirty years from the 1940s -to the 1970s where nearly everyone got married and lived in nuclear families, and now we are returning to greater family diversity.

If we look at Marriage and Divorce – the decades after the end of the Second World War were an abnormal period, with much higher marriage rates than usual. Previously, in the 1930s for example, 15 percent of women and 9 percent of men did not marry. Similar numbers had long been normal.

If we look at lone parenthood –  In the early 18th century, 24 percent of marriages were ended by the death of a partner within ten years. As a result, a mixture of lone-parents, step-parents and step-children were commonplace in Britain.

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Explaining the increase in family and household diversity (part 2/3)

4. 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.

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 2012, women accounted for 91 per cent of lone parents with dependent children and men the remaining 9 per cent. These percentages have changed little since 1996. Women are more likely to take the main caring responsibilities for any children when relationships break down, and therefore become lone parents.

5. Social Policies

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. (The current weekly Jobseekers allowance is under £60/ week).

6. Late Modernism

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.

6. 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 2006 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 1.27 million – this means more young adults are not in work and economically dependent on their parents for longer.

Evaluating the idea that there is increasing family diversity (part 3 of 3)

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Explaining the increase in family diversity (part 1/3 )

This is part 1 of 3 posts outlining the underlying factors which explain the increase in household diversity

Explaining the long term increase in family diversity

1. Changing patterns of marriage, divorce and cohabitation

The increase long term decline or marriage and increase in cohabitation and divorce can explain many of the above trends:

The fact that people are getting married later explains why there are more Kidult and single person households (for those who can afford it).

Any divorce which involves children is very likely to create one single parent household and one single person household for a period of time, and then many of these people will go on to form reconstituted families.

Relationship breakdown is more common amongst cohabiting rather than married families, and the cohabiting family household is the fastest growing family type in the UK.

Higher rates of divorce might also explain the increase in multigenerational households – as single mothers move back in with their parents, thus forming a multigenerational household.

2. Postmodernism and Postmodernisation

Postmodernists argue that the increase in the diversity of family household structures reflects the fact that we live in a diverse, tolerant society in which people are free to choose any type of family.

More people choose to stay single and hence there is an increase in Single Person Households Kidult households and because people are more tolerant it is easier than it was to be a single parent today because there is less stigma associated with being a single parent.

Another related factor here is that people are freer to choose non-nuclear families because of the decline of tradition and religion – there is much less social pressure to get married, have kids and stay married, so all other options become more viable.

Evaluation: Other perspectives argue that people do not simply choose to go into ‘alternative family structures’ – For example, Burghes and Browne’s 1995 research with 31 single parents found that not one of them had planned to become single parents, and all of them arributed their single parent status to the fact that their male partners had been either violent or too immature for parenthood

3. Economic Factors

The long term increase in wealth and overall rising standards of living explains the long-term increase in single person households. Generally wealthier countries have a higher proportion of single person households, and it is only wealthy countries where significant numbers of people can afford to live alone because it is expensive compared to two adults sharing the cost of a mortgage, bills, and food. It seems that when people can afford to do so, they are more likely to choose to live alone.

However, not everyone has benefitted from increasing wealth in the UK because at the same time as increasing wealth, the cost of living, and especially the cost of housing has increased. This explains the recent increase in multigenerational households and Kidult Households: at the lower end of the social class scale there are millions of people who cannot afford to buy or even rent their own houses, and so they stay living with their parents.

Explaining the increase in family diversity part 2 of 3