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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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
Economic changes, technological chances, changing gender roles, postmodernisation and changes to the position of children all help explain why the birth rate and total fertility rates in England and Wales have halved over the last 100 years.
This post explores why. It has primarily been written for students studying the families and households topic on the A-level sociology syllabus.
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
Globally, the general trend is that the wealthier the 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 societies 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.
The development of contraceptive technologies in the 1960s – Namely the contraceptive pill – gave rise to what Anthony 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 technologies 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 is 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.
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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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.
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.
If you like this sort of thing, you might also like these revision videos on YouTube
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
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)
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
The main trend in marriage in the UK is that of long term decline. This post examines some of the reasons behind this, such as changing gender roles, the increasing cost of living and individualisation
Sociological explanations for the long term decline in marriage include changing gender roles, the impact of feminism and female empowerment, economic factors such as the increasing cost of living and the individualisation associated with postmodernism.
This post has been written for the families and household topic within A-level sociology. .
Overview of the trends in marriage in the UK
Office for National Statistics: Divorces in England and Wales 2018
There has been a long term decline in the number of marriages in England and Wales.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s there were over 400 00 marriages a year, by 2017 there were just under 250 000 marriages a year.
Although the decline seems to have slowed recently, ad even increased since 2008.
The above graph only shows the long term overall decline in marriage. Other trends include:
- People are more likely to cohabit (although in most cases this is a step before marriage)
- People are marrying later
- The number of remarriages has increased.
- Couples are less likely to marry in church
- There is a greater diversity of marriages (greater ethnic diversity and civil partnerships)
- There has been a very recent increase in the marriage rate.
Evaluation Point – Even though it’s declining, marriage is still an important institution because….
- Most households are still headed by a married couple
- Couples may cohabit, but this is normally before getting married – they just get married later
- Most people still think marriage is the ideal type of relationship
- The fact that remarriages have increased show that people still value the institution of marriage.
Explaining the long term decrease in marriage
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Economic Factors – The increasing cost of living and the increasing cost of weddings.
Increasing property prices in recent years may be one of the factors why couples choose to get married later in life. The average deposit on a first time home is now over £30 000, with the average cost of a wedding being around £18 000. So for most couples it is literally a choice between getting married in their 20s and then renting/ living with parents, or buying a house first and then getting married in their 30s. The second option is obviously the more financially rational.
Changing gender roles
Liberal Feminists point to changing gender roles as one of the main reasons why couples get married later. More than half of the workforce is now female which means that most women do not have to get married in order to be financially secure. In fact, according to the theory of the genderquake, the opposite is happening – now that most jobs are in the service sector, economic power is shifting to women meaning that marriage seems like a poor option for women in a female economy.
The New Right
Blame the decline of marriage on moral decline – part of the broader breakdown of social institutions and due to too much acceptance of diversity. This results in the inability of people to commit to each other, and they see this as bad for society and the socialisation of the next generation.
Postmodernists explain the decline in marriage as a result of the move to postmodern consumer society characterised by greater individual choice and freedom. We are used to being consumers and picking and choosing, and so marriage is now a matter of individual choice.
Another process associated with Postmodernisation is the decline of tradition and religion (secularisation) – as a result there is less social stigma attached to cohabiting or remarrying after a divorce.
Associated with the ideas of Anthony Giddens and Ulrich Beck – argues that the decline in marriage is not as simple as people simply having more freedom – People are less likely to get married because of structural changes making life more uncertain. People may want to get married, but living in a late-modern world means marriage doesn’t seem like a sensible option.
Ulrich Beck argues that fewer people getting married is because of an increase in ‘risk consciousness’ – people see that nearly half of all marriages end in divorce and so they are less willing to take the risk and get married.
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.
Giddens builds on this and says that the typical relationship today is the Pure Relationship – one which lasts only as long as both partners are happy with it, not because of tradition or a sense of commitment. This makes cohabitation and serial monogamy rather than the long term commitment of a marriage more likely.
- The decline of marriage is not as simple as it just being about individual choice
- There are general social changes which lie behind its decline
- We should not exaggerate the decline of marriage (see details above)
For a more ‘human explanation’ check out this video – sociological perspectives on the decline in marriage
Explaining the Long Term Increase in Divorce – Essay Plan
This post examines the effects of declining in marriage and increasing divorce. Have women benefitted from these changes like some Feminists suggests. Are these trends signs of moral decline like the The New Right suggest, or are these trends just part of the broader process of individualisation and increasing reflexivity and nothing to worry about?
What replaces married couples?
- Probably the most fundamental thing is that people’s attitudes towards marriage have change. The idea that marriage is a necessary tradition or a sacred duty have declined drastically, marriage is now seen as a choice.
- There is greater family and household diversity as a result.
- Despite the decline of marriage, most people still ‘couple up’ – cohabitation has increased.
- Cohabiting couples are more likely to break up, so relationships have become more unstable. A related factor here is that serial monogamy, rather than out and out promiscuity throughout one’s life appears to be the new norm.
- High levels of divorce create more single parent households and more single person households, as well as more reconstituted families
- Finally, it is important not to exaggerate the decline of marriage – most households are still headed by a married couple.
Feminists would generally see the decline of marriage as a tradition as a good thing, because traditional marriage is a patriarchal institution. Most divorces proceedings are initiated by women which suggests that marriage works less well for women than for men.
However, Radical Feminists would point out that the increase in divorce has not necessarily benefited women – as children go to live with the mother in 90% cases following a divorce, and single parent families (mostly female) suffer higher levels of poverty and stigma.
The New Right/ Functionalists
Would interpret these trends in a negative way, as indicating a decline in morality, and a breakdown of social structure and order – the family is supposed to be the fundamental building block of society, and it is difficult to see what will replace it. Without the family we risk less effective primary socialisation and more problem children as well as more anomie for adults.
The decline of marriage and increase in divorce reflect the fact that we are part of a consumer society where individual choice is central to life. The end of the ideology of the nuclear family is seen as good, and Postmodernists tend to reject the idea that the traditional married nuclear family is better than other family forms, so these trends are not a significant problem for either the individual or society.
People still value marriage but changes in the social structure make it harder to start and to maintain stable relationships – greater gender equality means it’s harder to please both partners, and the fact that both people have to do paid work doesn’t help with the communication required to keep a relationship going, or help with people getting together in the first place.
People now delay getting married not only because of needing to establish a career first, but also because of the increased cost of mortgages and weddings, and because of the increased fear of getting divorced – with cohabiting the new norm before marriage.
New institutions also emerge to help us cope with the insecurities of modern relationships – marriage guidance and pre-nuptial agreements are two of the most obvious.
In short, marriage is not about to disappear as an institution, but it’s not an easy path to pursue either.
Assess the reasons for the long term increase in the divorce rate (20)
This essay looks at social policies such as the 1969 divorce act, changes to gender roles, economic factors, secularisation and postmodernisation.
Introduction – The divorce rate has generally increased since the 1960s. The number almost trebled in the years following the 1969 divorce act and from the mid-1970s, the divorce rate has risen steadily, although it has been declining since 2005.
Social Policy changes are the first factor that explains rapidly increasing divorce in the early 1970s – the 1969 the Divorce Act extended the grounds of divorce to ‘irretrievable breakdown’, making divorce possible even if only one partner wanted a divorce. However, this cannot explain all of the increase, since the divorce rate was rising before the act, and continued to rise for many years afterwards.
Economic Factors – We also need to look at economic factors – Increasing inequality in the UK has meant that the lower social classes now get paid less compared to rising living costs (mortgages/ bills). This means that both partners in a marriage now need to do paid work to get by, which puts a strain on the marriage which leads to higher numbers getting divorced. A positive evaluation of this is that divorce rates are higher amongst poorer families.
The New Right would claim that increasingly generous welfare benefits for single mothers is a crucial factor which allows women to divorce if they deem it necessary – because if divorce occurs within a family, in 9/10 cases, the child will go with the mother – making it difficult to find full time work – and hence benefits may be a necessary link in the chain of explaining the increase in divorce. The New Right would also see the increasing divorce rate as a sign of wider moral decline, a point of view which is not shared by the next three perspectives…
Feminism/ changing gender roles. Many commentators argue that the changing position of women in society. Is crucial to understanding the increase in divorce rates.
Women today are much more likely to be in employment today and this means they are less financially dependent on their husbands and thus freer to end an unsatisfactory marriage. The proportion of women in some kind of paid work is now 70%, whereas in the 1950s it was less than 50%
Giddens himself argues that two trends are the most important – the impact of the Feminist movement, which arguably lies behind all of the above changes, and also the advances in contraception – which allows women to avoid unwanted pregnancies – and women in marriages without children will be freer to leave those marriages. Feminists however, point out that the advances of women can be exaggerated – women still earn less than men, and traditional gender norms remain in many families.
A further set of reasons are those associated with Postmodernism. Both religion and traditional values have declined in Britain. As a result there is no longer a set of social values which force people into staying married, there is less social stigma attached to getting a divorce and so people are freer to choose to get divorced. This change reflects the declining importance of social structure and the rise of consumer culture – the idea that individuals can choose their own lifestyles. However, one exception to this might that among some Muslim communities the concept of Izaat still prevents people from getting divorced.
Late Modern Sociologists argue against Postmodernists – getting a divorce is not simply a matter of individual choice, rather the increasing divorce rate is because of the changing nature of the typical relationship.
Anthony Giddens, for example 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.
Ulrich Beck points out that divorce has increased because the typical late-modern family is characterised by more gender equality and negotiation – pleasing both partners takes a lot of time and effort, which is simply not sustainable when both partners are in paid work, which in turn explains the high levels of divorce.
By way of a conclusion, there are many different historical trends that go into explaining the increase in divorce rates – it is important to remember that social structural forces are at work – such as changes in the law, the impact of Feminism and the changing role of women, which have had the effect of making our society more gender equal and providing people with greater choice, all of which work together to explain the increasing rate of divorce.
As a final word, it is also worth noting that the divorce rate is now decreasing – which could be due to the fact that the age at which people get married is increasing – people get married after a lengthy period of co-habitation – and so are more likely to marry the right person for the right reasons!
For more essays, please see my main post on exam advice, short answer questions and essays.