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)

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

Trends in Family and Household Diversity

Trends in Reconstituted Families

  • In 2011 there were 544,000 step families with dependent children in England and Wales.
  • This means that 11% of couple families with dependent children were step families.
  • The Number of step families has increased since the 1950s.
  • However, the number of step families has declined recently dropping from 631,000 in 2001 to just 544,000 in 2011.
  • If there is only one biological parent in the step-family, that parent is the mother rather than the father in 90% of cases.

Trends in Lone Parent Households

  • There were nearly 2.0 million lone parents with dependent children in the UK in 2012, a figure which has grown significantly from 1.6 million in 1996.
  • 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.

Trends in Single Person Households

  • In the UK, 34% of households have one person living in them.
  • According to Euromonitor International, the number of people living alone globally is skyrocketing, rising from about 153 million in 1996 to 277 million in 2011 – an increase of around 80% in 15 years.

Trends in ‘Kidult’ Households

  • According to the Office for National Statistics, in 2011, nearly 3.0 million adults aged between 20 and 34 were living with a parent or parents, an increase of almost half a million, or 20 per cent, since 1997.
  • This means that nearly 1/3 men and 1/7 women in the UK now live with their parents.

Trends in Multigenerational Households

  • The ONS doesn’t collect data on ‘multigenerational households’, but it does collect data on ‘concealed families’, a closely related concept.
  • The latest census analysis reveals there were 289,000 concealed families in 2011, making up 1.8% of all families (15.8 million) in England and Wales. A concealed family is a family living in a multi-family household, in addition to the primary family.

Related Post

Explaining the increase in family diversity – part 1 of 3

Explaining the long term decrease in the death rate

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Explaining the long term decrease in the death rate

What are the Trends?

  • The death rate has halved in the last century, declining from 19/1000 to 10/1000 today.
  • In the first part of the century,most of this decrease was due to fewer children dying of infectious diseases, later on in the century, the continued decline is due to people living longer into old age.
  • The major causes of death have changed – from mainly being due to preventable, infectious diseases in the early part of the century to ‘diseases of affluence’ such as heart disease and cancers today.
  • There are considerable variations in life expectancy by gender and social class – people in the poorest parts of Glasgow die before 60, in the wealthiest parts of the UK (e.g. Kensington) life expectancy is nearer 90.

Explaining the decrease in the death rate

1. Economic growth and improving living standards

There are number of ways in which this had led to a decline in the death rate:

  • better food and nutrition (which in turn is related to better transport networks and refrigeration) which has meant that children are better able to resist infectious diseases, reducing the infant and child mortality rates. This is estimated to account for 50% of the decline in the death rate.
  • Better quality housing – Better heating and less damp, means less illness.
    Smaller family sizes – as people get richer they have fewer children, which reduces the chances of disease transmission.
  • More income = more taxation which = more money for public health services.
  • Evaluation – It’s worth noting that not all people have benefited equally from the above advances. The wealthy today have longer life expectancy than the poor, who still suffer health problems related to poverty.
  • Evaluation – In terms of food and nutrition, obesity is now becoming a serious problem – more food doesn’t necessarily mean better nutrition.

Medical Advances

  • Mass immunisation programmes limited the spread of infectious diseases such as measles.
  • Important in improving survival rates from ‘diseases of affluence’ such as heart disease and cancers.
  • Only really significant since the 1950s.
  • Evaluation – It’s easy to fall into the trap into thinking that modern medicine is the most important factor in improving life expectancy, it isn’t – economic growth, rising living standards and improvements in public health are more important.

Social Policies

  • The setting up of the NHS
  • Health and safety laws – which legislate so that we have clean drinking water, food hygiene standards and safe sewage and waste disposal
  • The clean air act and other policies designed to reduce pollution
  • Health and Safety laws at work.
  • Evaluation – These are largely taken for granted, but they are important!

Other factors

  • There is greater knowledge and concern about health today
  • The decline of manual work means work is less physical and exhausting and less dangerous.

Overall conclusion/ analysis points

  • 3/4s of the decline between the 1850s and 1970 was due to the reduction of infectious (fairly easily preventable) diseases such as Cholera, and improved nutrition accounts for half of this reduction. In these early years
  • More recently, the decrease in the death rate has been due to improving survival rates from heart disease and cancers.
  • The declining death rate is not necessarily all good – in the last decades we have witnessed a declining death rate and a declining birth rate – and so we now have an ageing population, which requires society to adapt in order to meet the different demands of differently structured population.

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Explaining changes to the Birth Rate

Explaining changes to the birth rate

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Trends in the Birth Rate and Total Fertility Rate

  • Between 1901 to 2010 the birth rate declined from 29 per thousand to 13 per thousand
  • The Total Fertility Rate has also seen a general decline in the last century, from a peak of almost 3 babies per woman in the 1960s to a low point of about 1.6 babies per woman in 2001.
  • However, the last 15 years have witnessed an increase back up to 2 babies per woman.

Explaining the long term decline in the birth rate

Economic Changes

Globally, the general trend is that the wealthier country, the lower the birth rate. It would seem that economic growth and rising living standards mean adults have fewer children. Part of the reason for this is that higher living standards mean better quality housing, better nutrition, better education and better medical care – all of which reduce the infant mortality rate, meaning that parents have fewer ‘replacement babies’ to make up for those who die before their first birthday.

A second factor here is related to Functionalism – as Functionalists see it, as societys evolve and become more complex, other institutions take over key functions of the family – men go into wage labour, which gets taxed, which then translates into schools and hospitals and pensions – the last century in the UK has seen the emergence of all of these institutions – people no longer need children to look after them in their old age, or to work the fields, other institutions do this, so people have fewer children.

A final way economic factors can reduce the birth rate are that people are so busy working they don’t have time to start families – which is the case in contemporary Japan.

A criticism of economic arguments is that they are deterministic, people don’t just react to economic changes like robots, and they also appear a little ‘cold’ – It implies that people only have children for selfish, economic reasons.

Technologcial Changes

The development of contraceptive technologies in the 1960s – Namely the contraceptive pill – gave rise to what Athony Giddens calls ‘plastic sexuality’ = Sex becomes detached from reproduction. Also, importantly, The Pill gave women control of their reproduction and they could choose when to have children. There is no direct correlation between the invention of The Pill and the decline in the fertility rate – in fact the Baby Boom of the 1960s came immediately after The Pill’s invention, and most women clearly still choose to have babies, but this technological change does explain why women have babies later in life and have fewer children.

Other technological innovations which have led to people having babies later in life are IVF and the freezing of eggs – together these technologie mean women can delay having children into their 40s, extending the ‘natural’ period of fertility much later than is traditionally the case.

An attendant analysis point here is that for IVF to be available for all women, it requires the state to fund it, otherwise this would be prohibitively expensive for couples with low incomes, so for this technological factor to have an impact, it needs to combine with political rights and a wealthy state.

Changes in the Role of Women

Anthony Giddens and Ulrich Beck both regard this as the most important factor explaining the decline in the birth rate. Because women how have formal legal equality with men, and increased educational opportunities (girls are now outperforming boys at school), women now make up half the work force, and this has led to changes in attitudes to family life – Career now comes first for many women, and childbearing is delayed by an average of ten years compared to in the 1950s. Women now typically have their first babies in their 30s, not their 20s and up 1/4 women are expected to remain childless.

As an evaluation point here – it’s important not to exaggerate the advances women have made, when the children come along, it is still predominantly women who do the majority of childcare and housework and suffer the consequences in terms of their career.

Postmodernisation

All of the above changes are part of the broader process of posmodernisation – The decline of traditional norms and values such as those associated with religions mean that contraception is no longer viewed in a stigmatised way and declining birth rates also reflect individualisation – the fact that we put our own needs first and it is acceptable to choose not to have children.

A criticism of Postmodernism is that many people simply don’t choose to have children. Many people are forced into living an uncertain, unpredictable life where having children may not be a possibility or simply not be rational or affordable.

Changes in the position of children

Until the late 19th century children were an asset to their parents because they could be sent out to work. Today, laws protect children from working and dictate that they should spend 18 years in education, and thus children have become an economic liability – they are a net drain on parents’ income. This puts people off having children.

People also have fewer children because we now live in a ‘child centred society’ – It is expected that children be the centre of family life, and parents are expected to spend more money (£250K is the average cost) and more time than ever engaged with their children – it is easier to do this with fewer children.

Explaining the recent increase in the birth rates.

Three factors which could explain this include…

  • Increasing immigration – immigrant mothers have more children (accounts for approx. 20% of the increase)
  • Reduction in child poverty – New Labour increased welfare payments to poorer families – easier to have children
  • Advances in birth technologies – increase in IVF – more women in their 40s having babies

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Explaining the long term decline of the death rate

The Postmodern Perspective on The Family

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This post is designed to help you revise for the AS Sociology Families and Households Exam

Postmodernists argue that we no longer live in the modern world with predictable orderly structures, such as the nuclear family. Instead society has entered a new, chaotic postmodern stage. In postmodern society, family structures are incredibly varied and individuals have much more freedom of choice in aspects of their lives which would have been relatively constrained in the past i.e. lifestyles, personal relationships ad family arrangements.

Postmodern society has two key characteristics

1. Diversity and fragmentation
Society is increasingly fragmented, with a broad diversity of subcultures rather than one shared culture. People create their identity from a wide range of choices, such as youth subcultures, sexual preferences and social movements such as environmentalism.

2. Rapid social change
New technology such as the internet, email and electronic communication have transformed our lives by dissolving barriers of time and space, transforming patterns of work and leisure and accelerated pace of change making life less predictable.

As a result of these social changes, family life has become very diverse and there is no longer one dominant family type (such as the nuclear family). This means that it is no longer possible to make generalisations about society in the same way that modernist theorists such as Parsons or Marx did in the past.

Postmodernity and The Family

Examples of Two Post-Modernist Thinkers

Stacey (1998) “The Divorce-Extended Family”

Judith Stacey argues that women have more freedom than ever before to shape their family arrangement to meet their needs and free themselves from patriarchal oppression. Through case studies conducted in Silicon Valley, California she found that women rather than men are the driving force behind changes in the family. She discovered than many women rejected the traditional housewife role and had chosen extremely varied life paths (some choosing to return to education, becoming career women, divorcing and remarrying). Stacey identified a new type of family “the divorce-extended family” – members are connected by divorce rather than marriage, for example ex in laws, or former husband’s new partners.

Hareven (1978) “Life Course Analysis”

Tamara Hareven advocates the approach of life course analysis, that is that sociologists should be concerned with focus on individual family members and the choices that they make throughout life regarding family arrangements. This approach recognises that there is flexibility and variation in people’s lives, for example the choices and decisions they make and when they make them. For example, when they decide to raise children, choosing sexuality or moving into sheltered accommodation in old age.

Criticisms of Postmodernism

  • Late-Modernists such as Anthony Giddens suggest that even though people have more freedom, there is a still a structure which shapes people’s decisions
  • Contemporary Feminists disagree with Postmodernism, pointing out that in most cases traditional gender roles which disadvantage women remain the norm.

Related Posts 

The Personal Life Perspective on the Family

The Late Modern Perspective on the Family

If you like this sort of thing, you might also like these revision videos on YouTube

Families Topic 2 – Marriage, Divorce and Cohabitation – Short Answer Questions

 

Identify two trends (changes) in the pattern of marriage despite the fact that the overall number of marriages have declined (4)

  • Fewer people are marrying

  • There are more remarriages

  • People are marrying later

  • Couples are less likely to marry in church

Suggest three social changes which explain why there has been a decline in the marriage rate (6)

  • There is less pressure to marry – people believe that the relationship is more important than legal status

  • Secularisation

  • Declining shame attached to cohabitation and remaining single and having children outside of marriage

  • Changing position of women – with better job prospects women are no longer financially dependent on men and are thus able to choose not to marry

  • Increasing fear of divorce (linked to risk society/ risk consciousness/ late-modernism)

Suggest three reasons for the overall rise in the divorce rate since 1969 (6)

  • Changes in the divorce law – equalising the grounds of divorce between the sexes; widening the grounds for divorce, making divorce cheaper (Social Policy)

  • Declining stigma and changing attitudes – divorce is becoming more socially acceptable (Postmodernism)

  • Secularisation – the traditional opposition of churches carries less weight (Postmodernism)

  • Individualisation leads to rising expectations of marriage – When the marriage doesn’t live up to expectations, divorce is more likely (Late-Modernism)

  • The changing position of women women are now no longer dependent on men financially so don’t need to stay married for economic reasons (Feminism)

Suggest two reasons for the recent decrease in divorce rates (4)

  • Fewer people are getting married, so there are fewer people who can divorce

  • Because people are getting married later, they are more likely to stay together

  • People can’t afford to get a divorce and set up two new homes

  • Increasing immigration – Immigrants are more likely to hold traditional values and thus less likely to get divroced

Suggest two alternatives to Divorce (4)

  • Desertion

  • Legal separation

  • Empty shell marriages

Identify two consequences of an increasing divorce rate (4)

  • Increase in single parent households after divorce

  • Increase in single person households after divorce

  • Potenital harm to children

  • Increase in reconstituted families

Explaining the Changing Patterns of Marriage Mind Map

This is one way of teaching/ revising this sub-topic within the marriage and divorce topic of the Families and Households Module. You might need to click on it to enlarge it!

Explaining the changing patterns of Marriage in the UK