Changes to childhood since Victorian Times

How has childhood in the UK changed since the 19th Century, and have these changes been positive?

There have been several changes to the lives of children since the early 19th century, and we can break these down as follows:

  • Work – Policies which regulated and restricted child labour, leading to the eventual exclusion of children from paid work
  • Education – The introduction of compulsory education and the increase in both funding of education and the raising of the school leaving age.
  • The Medicalisation of childbirth and early childcare – Rather than high infant mortality rates, the NHS now provides comprehensive maternity and early childcare to mothers and children.
  • Legislation has emerged to exclude children from a whole range of potentially harmful and dangerous acts
  • Children now have more money spent on them than ever – a range of specialist products and services have emerged and increased which are specifically aimed at children and child development. Link in money here.
  • Parents now spend more time with their children, actively engaged with ‘parenting’.
  • Child Welfare – The introduction of child protection and welfare legislation, and its expansion into every aspect of child services through recent Safeguarding policies.
  • The recent growth of the idea of ‘rights of the child’ has given children more of a voice in society.
Mind Map of eight changes to childhood since the 19th century, for A-level sociology, families and households option (AQA)

Most people see these changes as representing a ‘March of Progress’ – they see such changes as gradually improving the lives of children by giving them more protection for the stresses of adult life. It seems that we have moved towards a ‘child centred society’.

However, there are sociologists who point to the downsides of some changes, especially in the last 50 years.

This post mainly adopts a March of Progress perspective, with the critical perspectives dealt with in my other posts on ‘Toxic Childhood’ and ‘Paranoid Parenting’. It has been written primarily for students studying the Families and Households option for A-level Sociology.

Childhood in Victorian Times

During the early 19th Century, many working-class children could be found working in factories, mines, and mills. They often worked long-hours and in unsafe conditions, which had negative consequences for their health, and could sometimes even result in children being injured or dying at work.

At home, children were also often required to take on adult-work, doing domestic chores and caring for sick relatives.

Social attitudes towards children started to change in the middle of the 19th century, and childhood gradually came to be seen more as a distinct phase of life, separate from adulthood, with children needing protecting  from the hardships of adult life, especially work and provided with more guidance and nurturing through education.

These attitudes were reflected in the introduction of several social policies related to work and education, and the establishment of institutions dedicated to child welfare gradually changed the status of children

The changes below have happened over a very long period of time – from the 1830s, with the first factor acts restricting child labour, right up to the present day, with the emergence of the ‘rights of the child’, spearheaded by the United Nations.

Changes to childhood since Victorian Times: A March of Progress?

Work

There were several ‘factories acts’ throughout the 19th century, which gradually improved the rights of (typically male) workers by limiting working hours, and many of these acts had clauses which banned factories from employing people under certain ages.

The 1833 Factories Act was the first act to restrict child labour – it made it illegal for textile factories to employ children under the age of 9, and required factories to provide any children aged 9-13 with at least 12 hours of education a week.

The 1867 Factories Act extended this idea to all factories – this act made it illegal for any factors to employ children under the age of 8 and provide children aged 8-13 with at least 10 hours of education a week.

The 1878 Factories Act placed a total ban on the employment of children under the age of 10, fitting in nicely with the introduction of education policies.

Today, children can only work full-time from the age of 16, and then they must do training with that employment. Full adult working rights only apply from the age of 18.

Children aged 13-15 can work, but there are restrictions on the number of hours and the types of ‘industry’ they can work in. Babysitting is one of the most common jobs for this age group.

Education

The 1870 Education Act introduced Education for all children aged 5-12, although this was voluntary at the time.

In 1880 it was made compulsory for all children to attend school aged 5-12, with the responsibility for attendance falling on the Local Education Authorities.

The next century saw the gradual increasing of the school leaving age and increase in funding for education:

  • 1918 – The school leaving age raised to 14
  • 1944 – school leaving age raised to 15 (also the year of the Tripartite system and massive increase in funding to build new secondary modern schools)
  • 1973 – The school leaving age increased to 16.
  • 2013 – Children were required to remain in education or work with training until 18.

Today the UK government spends almost £100 billion a year on education, and around 500 000 people are employed in the child-education sector.

Children are expected to attend school for 13 years, and their attendance and progress is monitored intensely (some may say over-monitored) during that time, with extra support being provided depending on students’ ‘individual learning needs’.

The scope of education has also increased – the curriculum has broadened to include a wide range of academic and, later on, vocational subjects, as well as there being a focus on personal well-being and development.

The Medicalisation of childbirth and early childcare

Rather than high infant and child mortality rates as was the case in the Victorian era, the NHS now provides comprehensive maternity and early childcare to mothers and children.

The Stats below Public Spending on Children 2000-2020 show how a lot of the recent increase comes from more ‘community spending’ – in light blue.

Legislation excluding children from harmful and dangerous activities

There are legally enforced age restrictions on many activities:

  • Children aged 10 have full responsibility for their own actions and can be prosecuted and convicted for a crime from this age.
  • Children under the age of 14 cannot work, but at age 14 they can do ‘light work’
  • Children can apply for the armed forces at 15 years and 9 months, but they can’t serve until they are 16.
  • 16 years of age is really where children start to get more rights – you can serve with the armed forces, drive a moped, get a job (with training) and change your name at 16.
  • At age of 18, you have reached ‘the age of entitlement’ – you are an adult.

For more details you might like to visit the ‘at what age can I’? timeline.

Children now have more money spent on them than ever

This could well be the most significant change in social attitudes to childhood, specifically in relation to the family.

Children use to be perceived as people who needed to bring money into the family home, today they are perceived as people who should have money spent on them.

According to one recent survey, the average family spends half their salary on their children.

Expenditure by parents on their first newborn child (on things such as push chairs) increased by almost 20% between 2013 and 2019.

A range of specialist products and services have emerged and increased which are specifically aimed at children and child development.

Parents now spend more time with their children

Research from 2014 found that fathers spent seven times longer with their children compared to 40 years earlier in 1974, although the increase had gone from 5 minutes to still only 35 minutes.

Child Welfare

The introduction of child protection and welfare legislation, and its expansion into every aspect of child-services through recent Safeguarding policies.

The ‘rights of the child’

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child outlines several rights children have including:

  • The right to be heard
  • The right to an identity
  • The right to not be exploited
  • The right to an education.

There are several more, as outlined in this child friendly version of the document…

A Child Centred Society

Changes such as those outlined above seem to suggest that our society has become more child centered over the last century or so, with children occupying a more central role than ever, with more money and time being spend on them than ever, and with children being the ‘primary concern’ of many public services and often the sole thing that gives meaning to the lives of many parents.

According to Cunningham (2006) the child centered society has three main features (which is another way of summarising what’s above)

  1. Childhood is regarded as the opposite of adulthood – children in particular are viewed as being in need of protection from the adult world.
  2. Child and adult worlds are separated – they have different social spaces – playground and school for children, work and pubs for adults.
  3. Childhood is increasingly associated with rights.

If we look at total public expenditure on children, there certainly seems to be evidence that we live in a child centered society! (Source below)

Criticisms of the March of Progress View of childhood

The common sense view is to see the above changes as ‘progressive’. Most people would argue that now children are more protected that their lives are better, but is this actually the case? The ‘March of Progress’ view argues that yes, children’s lives have improved and they are now much better off than in the Victorian Era and the Middle Ages. They point to all the evidence on the previous page as just self-evidently indicating an improvement to children’s’ lives.

Conflict theorists, however, argue against the view that children’s lives have gradually been getting better – they say that in some ways children’s lives are worse than they used to be. There are three main criticisms made of the march of progress view

1. Recent technological changes have resulted in significant harms to children – what Sociologist Sue Palmer refers to as Toxic Childhood.

2. Some sociologists argue that children today are too controlled. Sociologists such as Frank Furedi argue that children today are overprotected, or too controlled – We live in the age of ‘Paranoid Parenting’.

3. There are significant inequalities between children, so if there has been progress for some, there certainly has not been equal progress.

A further criticisms lies in the idea that childhood may now be disappearing – for more details check out this post: The Disappearance of Childhood.

Sources

The National Archives

Child Labour: The British Library

UK Child and Labour Laws: a History

Child Employment

Public Spending on Children 2000-2020

Trends in Marriage, Divorce and Cohabitation in the UK

This post explores the long and short term trends in marriage, divorce and cohabitation in the United Kingdom.

It has been written as an introduction to the ‘marriage and divorce’ topic which is usually taught as the second topic within the AQA’s families and households A-level sociology specification.

Marriage and Divorce Trends: An Overview

There was a long term decrease in the number of marriages per year since the late 1960s when there were just over 400 000 marriages every year, until around 2008, when the number hit around 230 000.

There has been a slight increase since then and there are now around 240 000 marriages every year in the UK, and this number has been relatively stable since 2008.

The number of Divorces per year increased rapidly following the Divorce Reform Act of 1969, and then increased steadily until the early 1980s. In the late 1950s, there were only around 20 000 Divorces per year, by the early 1980s this figure had risen to 160 000 per year (quite an increase!)

It then stabilised for about 10 years and then started to decline in 2003, the number of divorces per year is still decline. There are currently just under 90 000 divorces per year in England and Wales.

Marriage Statistics

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, since 2008.

Marriage Rates

The marriage rates (unsurprisingly) mirror the above – but you see a more obvious slowing down of the decline since the 2000s here.

What is the average age of Marriage?

The average age of marriage has increased from 25 for women in the 1960s to 36 for women in 2017, the average age for men is slightly higher.

The 36 average figure might be a bit misleading, the median age is slightly younger as shown by the chart below – late 20s and early 30s are when most women get married!

The Decline of Church Weddings

The above chart shows the drastic decrease in religious marriages, down to only 22% of all marriage ceremonies by 2017.

90% of couples cohabited before marrying in 2017, up from 70% in the late 1990s.

Divorce Statistics

The Divorce Rate was extremely low in the late 1950s, at only 2.5 per 100 000 married couples.

The Divorce Reform Act of 1969 led to this increasing rapidly to 10 per thousand in just a few years, by the early 1970s.

The Divorce Rate continued to increase until the early 1990s, when it hit almost 15 per thousand married couples. Since then it has been falling and currently stands at 7.5

NB – The Divorce Rate shows a slightly different trend to the ‘number of divorces’ – this is relative to the number of married couples!

What percent of marriages end in divorce?

It depends on the year of marriage! If we look at the ‘peak year’, 43.9% of people who got married in 1987 were divorced by 2017, the latest figures available. NB this rate might well be going down, as marriage has been declining since 1987.

How long does the average marriage last?

The length of marriage is increasing. For marriages which end in divorce, the median length of a marriage stands at around 12.5 years.

Main sources used to write this post

Office for National Statistics: Divorces in England and Wales 2018

ONS: Marriages in England and Wales 2017

ONS: Marriage and Divorce on the Rise, Over 65 and Over.

Statistics on Family Life in the United Kingdom

This post outlines some of the ‘key facts’ students should know for the A-level sociology families and households topics.

The statistics below are taken from range of different topics covered as part of the families and households specification (AQA focus), and I find it useful to introduce students to them as part of the ‘introduction to families’ lesson.

The activity I use is to give students a series of cut up cards, some with the ‘fact’ and some with the ‘number’, students can then match them as a pair work activity, or you could do it as a stand up walk around whole class activity (one card per student).

The list of facts for students to puzzle out is as follows:

Insert image of card matching (cut up)

Once students have tried their best to puzzle out the correct answers, I give them a gapped answer sheet and get them to research the different sources of the data and comment on how valid they think each piece of data is, by thinking about HOW the data was collected, or how the figures were calculated.

Insert image of gapped answer sheet (link to teaching resources eventually!)

This blog post is effectively the extended answers to the above gapped hand-out.

What percentage of marriages end in divorce?

Almost 44% of marriages in 1987 had ended in divorce by the year 2018.

Source: The Office for National Statistics – Marriages and Divorces in England and Wales.

How valid is this divorce data?

That 43.9% figure may sound alarming, but this is only true for marriages which took place in 1987, which is the ‘peak year’ (so far) for marriages ending in divorce.

If you look at marriages from slightly earlier years, then you get slightly lower figures. If you look at the divorce rate for the years after 1987, then the figures are also lower, and they could well stay that way because of the marriage rate declining since the late 1980s. Over time, as marriage has become more of a choice, this should lower the long-term divorce rate.

It follows that if we took an average divorce rate for several years surrounding 1987, we’d see a percentage lower than 43.9%.

So the data is valid, but only for two static years – 1987 to 2018. Any other selection of years will give you a different rate. Having said that, if you look at the lines in the graph above, they do seem to follow a predictable trend, so it’s unlikely that this figure is outright misleading! Just keep in mind it’s probably the very peak!

What percentage of households in the UK are cohabiting?

In 2018, almost 18% of family households were cohabiting compared to 67% married and 15% lone-parent.

The cohabiting family household has been one of the fastest growing household types in recent years

Source: ONS – Families and Households in the UK 2018

What is the average age a woman has her first child in the UK?

The average age of first-time mothers in the UK was 28.8 years in 2017.

Source: ONS.

How many babies does the average woman have?

The Total Fertility Rate in the United Kingdom in 2018 was 1.8 – an average of 1.8 babies per woman.

Source: ONS – Births in England and Wales, 2018.

How much does it cost to raise a child to the age of 18?  

The overall cost of a child up to age 18 (including rent and childcare) is £151,000 for couples.

Source: Child Poverty Action Group: The Cost of a Child 2019.

How valid is this data?

If you work it out per year, that’s about £8300 per year that parents are spending on their children on average, which sounds suspicious.

This might be an invalid figure because it includes housing costs, and it’s a bit dubious whether this is the actual cost, given that parents need a home to live in anyway. You can’t necessarily attribute the cost of an extra bedroom in a house to having a child as many childless couples live in houses with spare bedrooms.

It follows that a figure without housing costs might be more valid as that would be closer the money that’s spent exclusively on the child.

The report also makes it clear that the figure does not represent all families – it is more expensive for lone parent families to raise a child to age 18 – it costs them £185 000.

On average, how much more money a year does it cost to live a year if you are a single person living alone?

Single person households spend 92% of their disposable income, compared to only 83% for couples, meaning there is a 9% difference between the two.

Source: ONS – cost of living alone.

In 2018 the Life Expectancy for females in the UK was almost 83 years.

Source: ONS – National Life Tables

What was total net migration to the UK in the last year?

Net migration to the UK in 2018 (latest figures) was approximately 300 000

Source: ONS – Migration Statistics Quarterly

What percentage of long-term immigrants to the UK are from the EU?

About 50 000 net migrants are from the EU, so approximately 15%

Source: ONS – Migration Statistics Quarterly

Questions for Reflection:

Do any of the above sources lack validity?

Explain your answer in the comments below!

Explaining The Long Term Increase in Divorce

There are four main factors which can explain for the long term increase in divorce:

  • Social policy changes
  • Economic factor
  • Changing gender roles
  • Postmodernsisation.

This post examines these factors and others.

  

Social Policy Changes

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.

Functionalism

There are a number of reasons linked to the Functional Fit Theory which could explain the increase in divorce:

•           Functionalists such as Goode (1971) believe that conflict has increased because the family has become more isolated from other kin, placing an increased burden on husbands and wives who have little support from other relatives.

•           Dennis (1975) believes that because the family performs fewer functions the bonds between husband and wife are weaker.

•           Allan and Crowe (2001) point out that because the family is no longer an economic unit, this makes it easier for families to break up.

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

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.

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.

Giddens (1992) believes that the nature of marriage has changed because the nature of intimate relationships more generally have changed:

•           In the early period of modernity in the late 18th century, marriage became more than an economic arrangement as the idea of romantic love developed. The marriage partner was idealised as someone who would perfect a person’s life. Women kept their virginity waiting for the perfect partner.

•           In the era of what Gidden’s calls ‘late modernity’, plastic sexuality has developed. This means that sex can be for pleasure rather than conceiving children with your perfect marriage partner. Relationships and marriages are no longer seen as necessarily being permanent.

•           Marriage is now based on confluent love – Love that is dependent upon partners benefitting from the relationship. If they are not fulfilled in their relationship, couples no longer stay together out of a sense of duty, so divorce and relationship breakdown become more common.

Ulrich Beck points out that divorce has increased because individualisation. This involves:

  • More opportunities for individuals, especially women, and the opportunity for individuals to take more decisions about every aspect of their lives.
  • Increased conflict emerging from increased choice and uncertainty which leads to chaotic relationships and helps explain the higher divorce rate.

Shulamith Firestone – And the Artificial Womb

Shulamith Firestone argues that that the main cause of gender inequality is the biological fact of childbirth – which puts women at a physical disadvantage to men.

She suggests that we need to develop an artificial womb so that women have the choice to be free from the biological necessity of childbirth.

Shulamith Firestone

Her best known work is the Dialectic of Sex, published in 1970.

Firestone argues that the ‘sexual class system’ was the first form of stratification – such systems existed before class based systems and capitalism.

She argues that biological differences between men and women formed the basis for a differentiated division of labour , organised into what she calls the ‘biological family’, which has four key characteristics:

Characteristics of the Biological Family

  1. Women are disadvantaged by the biology – especially pregnancy and childbirth. When they are weakened and caring for their young children they are dependent on men (husbands, brothers, fathers) for their physical survival.)
  2. Women’s dependency on men is severe because of the long period of time it takes human infants to mature.
  3. The interdependence between mother and child, and both of them on men is found in every human society, and this dependency relationship produces unequal relationships.
  4. The sexual class system forms the basis of all other class systems. Men enjoy their power over women in the biological family and seek to extend this into other realms of social and economic life.

Hence Firestone argues that the sexual class system gives rise to the economic class system (not the other way around as Engels suggested.

Women need control over reproduction for gender equality

Firestone argued that contraception was a step towards greater gender equality, because it gave women more control over when they got pregnant.

However, she argues that for full equality women needed even more control over pregnancy – that we need to develop artificial wombs so that reproduction can take place without women being physically ‘disabled’ for several months compared to men. This would be necessary to break women’s dependency on men.

Firestone didn’t argue that artificial wombs were a ‘one stop shop’ for bringing about gender equality – she argued that we would have to fight economic inequalities, power psychology and other aspects of gender inequality to, in order to achieve genuine sexual equality.

Evaluations of Firestone

The biological fact that women give birth may well go some way to explaining the widespread fact of gender equality, however, even in traditional societies, ther eare wide differences in the level of gender power inequalities, and her theory doesn’t explain these variations.

Moreover, whether we need artificial wombs for gender equality is debatable – huge steps have been made recently towards greater equality without artificial wombs.

The article below is worth a read for some further evaluations:

Is artificial womb technology a tool for women’s liberation?

Artificial wombs aren’t science fiction

This is an interesting video outlining how artificial wombs are being developed for premature babies – it’s not quite what Firestone imagine, but it’s a step towards them maybe…

Sources

Some of this post was adapted from Haralambos and Holborn, edition 8!

Relevance to A-level sociology – This post is relevant to the Families and Households module, it is an example of a radical feminist perspective on the family.

The Dialectic of Sex (wiki link).

Pets as Part of the Family

One of the key ideas associated with The Personal Life Perspective on the family is that are lots of differences of opinion over who counts as family. Many people regard friends, dead relatives and pets as part of their family, for example.

This post examines the extent to which people in the UK think Pets are part of the family.

More than 90% of dog and cat owners regard pets as part of the family

According to a 2017 survey of 2000 dog and cat owners conducted by Lily’s Kitchen Pet Food:

  • 96% said they regard pets as part of the family
  • 60% admitted to being closer to their pet than to some members of their family
  • of cat owners get up at 4.00 a.m. to feed their cat
  • 30% Sign their pet’s name on birthday and Christmas cards
  • 20% say they refer to themselves as their pet’s ‘mummy’ or ‘daddy’.
  • 15% admit to having taken time off work because their pet was ill.
  • 33% let pets into the bathroom when they go to the loo…

Valentine’s Day Pet-Expenditure…

According to 2020 survey research by Pets At Home:

  • 58.6% – of pet owners reported spending between £11 and £100 on their pet on Valentine’s Day 2020,
  • 26% of respondents said they are more likely to buy their pet a gift than their partner.
  • Nearly a quarter of respondents reported they would prefer to spend Valentine’s day with their pet, rather than a love interest

This certainly seems to suggest that, for around 25% of the pet-owning population, pets are more important than their human partners.

Of course this might be because some (most?) of those respondents don’t actually have human partners! Also, the above stats have been collected by a Pet store for marketing purposes – the point being to make it seem like it’s normal to buy your pet a Valentines Day gift, so the reporting here might be selective to give the misleading impression that pets are more important than human partners, rather than pets being a kind of surrogate for a human partner.

Pet posts on social media

The Facebook Group: Our Pets are Family is certainly supporting evidence for the Personal Life perspective. Most of the posts are about pets that have been lost or stolen (yes, dog theft is a ‘thing’!), but with only 2.1K members, this doesn’t seem to be that representative of all pet-owners.

And I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of other pet related social media posts!

What do you think?

If you can think of any other pieces of evidence that either support or criticise the view that ‘pets are part of the family’ then drop links in the comments!

Signposting…

This post has been written to help students evaluate the Personal Life Perspective, which is part of the families and households module for A-level Sociology.

Family diversity by Social Class

How does family life vary by social class?

How do aspects of family life such as marriage, divorce, cohabitation, birth and death rates vary by social class?

This post has been written to fit the A-level sociology specification, families and households topic.

While social class and income levels are not the same thing, I’ve had to use Income as a ‘proxy’ for social class given that the research tends to look at family variation by income rather than class more generally.

Middle class couples are more likely to get married than working class couples

According to The Spectator there is a social class ‘marriage gap’ – those in the top class (professional/ managerial) are 48% more likely to get married than those in the bottom social class (cleaners).

Poor teens are much more likely to get pregnant and have babies than rich teens

According to The Poverty Site, teenage motherhood is eight times as common amongst those from manual social background as for those from managerial and professional backgrounds.

Also, the underage conception rate is highest in the North East of England.  Its rate of 11 per 1,000 girls aged 13 to 15 compares to 6 per 1,000 in the region with the lowest rate.

Professional women have babies later than ‘working class’ women’

According to ONS research from 2014 (yes, even in 2020 you have to go back this far to find it), professional women tend to have babies later than ‘working class’ women.

Only 3% of births to women under 30s are to women in higher managerial or professional classifications, but this figure rises to 14% for women over 40.

NB – the above doesn’t factor in how many women are in each category of social class, I include that table below…

So it’s difficult to tell from the above! But it does seem that the higher up the social class scale you go, the later in life women have babies!


Previous research from the Uni of Southampton found that half of women born in 1958 who obtained no educational qualifications had a child by the age of 22, while for those with degrees the age was 32.

This means that the term ‘generation’ could actually mean different things to different classes.

Source: Daily Mail Article from 2012.

Variations in ‘Life Paths’ by Social Class (American focus)

Research published in 2017 by Opportunity America shows considerable variation in marriage and divorce rates, and ‘life paths’ by social class.

The research divides ‘social classes’ by ‘poor’ ‘working class’ and ‘middle class’ and shows that:

  • 56% of people aged between 18-55% in the Middle and Upper classes were currently married, compared to only 26% of those who were ‘poor’.
  • Despite having lower marriage rates, the ‘poor’ also had higher divorce rates: 46% of ‘poor’ 18-55 year olds had ‘ever been divorced’ compared to only 30% of middle-upper classes.
  • The fertility rates also vary, being 2.4 and 1.7 respectively for the above two groups.
  • The Life Paths also vary, as below:

NB I quite like the above chart, it’s go a hint of the personal life perspective, life-course analysis about it!

Questions to consider

  • The final piece of research is from America, to what extent would you expect to find similar variations in family life by social class in the UK?
  • Give the lack of contemporary data, how might you track the relationship between social class and family life more accurately?

Thoughts and comments

There is only limited data available on the relationship between social class and family life – so much so that you often have to go back almost a decade to find the latest research. It’s very much a gap in official statistics!

Using ‘Income’ data rather than class data is a limitation of the research, the same limitation as when using Free School Meal data as a proxy for social class in the differential educational achievement debate.

Sometimes it is even impossible to find data on the relationship between income and family life – for example, there are no official statistics collected on the relationship between income and divorce, according to this response to a question from the ONS.

Political Lesbianism

The main idea of Political Lesbianism is that sexuality is a choice. It’s about rejecting heterosexuality and men, not necessarily about having sex with women.

It is one of the key ideas of Radical Feminism, although keep in mind that this is extreme, and not representative of all Radical Feminists!

According to Julie Bindel the debate over whether Feminists should ‘give up heterosexual sex and adopt Political Lesbianism as a practice started with the publication of a pamphlet in 1979 called ‘Love Your Enemy: the debate between heterosexual feminism and political lesbianism’, put together by the Leeds Revolutionary Feminist Group, and the main author being Shiela Jeffries.

You can download a full copy of this radical feminist pamphlet here. It’s commonly known as the ‘LYE’ pamphlet, or ‘Love your Enemy’

Some of the key ideas of ‘Love your Enemy’

  • Women needed to get rid of men from their beds and their heads to be truly free.
  • Male oppression is the only system of oppression in which the oppressor literally invades and colonises the interior of the other.
  • Penetrative sex (between men and women) is more than a symbol of oppression, its function and effect is the punishment and control of women.
  • Sexuality is not determined by genetics, it is not just biological, it is shaped by culture and it is a choice.

The pamphlet caused quite a debate within Feminism in the early 1980s, and it probably enhanced divisions within the movement. The video below explores some of the issues and conflicts surrounding Political Lesbianism

Criticisms of Political Lesbianism

Bea Campbell argued that it was more important to challenge men’s behaviour in heterosexual relationships than to insist that women give up heterosexual desire.

Lynne Segal also thinks we should celebrate heterosexuality.

Political Lesbianism seems to be based on a fear of men, rather than a love of women and/ or diversity!

Further reading on Political Lesbianism

What are the functions of the family today?

How have the functions of the family changed? Are the functions of the family in decline?

Functionalist sociologist Talcott Parsons developed the ‘Functional Fit Theory of the family, in which he argued that the extended family used to perform several functions in pre-industrial society, but as society industrialized and the smaller, nuclear family became the norm, the number of functions performed by the family declined.

This post examines the extent to which the functions of the family have changed and asks whether family functions have declined over the last 200 years. It can be used to evaluate the Functionalist perspective on the family.

This post has been written primarily for students studying the families and households topic for A-level sociology.

The functions of the family in pre-industrial society

  • Unit of production
  • Caring for the young, old sick and poor
  • Primary socialisation and control of children
  • Education of children
  • The stabilisation of adult personalities (I assume Parsons thought this was just as essential pre-industrialisation!)

The Functions of the family in industrial society

According to Parsons there are now just two ‘irreducible functions’ performed by the nuclear family :

  • primary socialisation – teaching children basic norms and values
  • the ‘stabilisation of adult personalities’ – providing psychological security for men and women in a stable relationship.

The changing functions of the family

Talcott Parsons was writing in 1950s, so it’s quite possible that even the two functions he identified are no longer performed by the family today (of course some people argue that the family didn’t even perform the functions he claimed they did back in the 1950s!)

To what extent have the functions of the family changed over time, and to what extent have they declined?

The family as a unit of production

Before industrialization and the growth of factory based consumption the family was also a unit of production – the family produced most of the goods it consumed itself, mainly food and clothes.

Today, the family household no longer produces its own goods for consumption. Instead, adults go out to work, earn wages and use those wages to buy food and clothes from the market.

More-over, the increase in technologically advanced products means it would be impossible today for the family-unit to produce itself many of the goods it requires to survive in modern society – so many goods require a complex division of labour with many different specialist job roles.

Caring for the young, old sick and poor

The family used to be the only institution which could care for dependents, however today we have a range of different services which have taken over these functions, most obviously the NHS.

Social welfare services can also intervene and remove children from parents if they believe abuse has been taking place.

Education of children

Before the Education Act of 1870 children were not required to go to school, so what education many of them received had to take place within the family.

There were exceptions to this, as those from wealthier families could send their children to school.

Occupational roles also tended to be ascribed – children learned their trades from their parents, with the skills for particular trades typically being passed down from father to son.

Today, the vast majority of children go to school from the age of 4-18, with the parents taking on a secondary role in their education.

Occupations are no longer passed down from parent to child either – most children rely on the education system to give them the specific vocational skills they will need for specific jobs – occupational status today is achieved, rather than ascribed.

Primary socialisation and control of children

This was the first of Parsons’ ‘irreducible functions of the family’ – that children learn the basic norms and values of society. However, today the state can play more of a role in this where certain parents are concerned.

Sure Start is a good example of the government getting more involved in parenting and Police and social services will intervene to attempt to regulate the behaviour of young offenders.

It’s also likely that parents have less control over children today, compared to the 1950s, because of the impact of the media. It is simply harder for parents to monitor and regulate hyperreality!

The stabilisation of adult personalities

Parsons argued that nuclear families provided stability and pyscholgical security for men and women.

It is difficult to argue this today, given the low rate of marriage and high rates of relationship breakdowns and divorce.

To what extent is the family a willing unit of consumption?

Evaluating the Marxist view of the family and false needs

Contemporary Marxists argue that one of the main functions of the family in capitalist societies is to act as a ‘unit of consumption’ – the family unit is supposed to buy the products necessary to keep capitalism going.

Key to understanding this theory is the idea of ‘false needs’ – which in Marxist theory are perceived ‘needs’ created by the capitalist system, rather than our ‘real needs’.

‘Real needs’ are basic material things such as food, shelter, clothing, but we might also include transport, health, education and general welfare.

‘False needs’ arise because of the demands of the capitalist system, rather than what we as individuals need. They include such things as the need for distraction or anything else we ‘need’ to make life bearable in an unfair system,  anything we might buy to give off a sense of our social status, and anything we buy or do to give ourselves or our children an edge in an artificially unequal world.  We could also include many of the products we buy out of fear, or out the need to make ourselves safe, if that fear is engineered by the capitalist system to keep the population under control.

This post has been written as part of an evaluation of The Marxist Perspective on the Family, part of the families and households module within A-level sociology.

False needs and the family

It is possible to think of many examples of families making purchases and consuming stuff which could fall into the category of false needs, which ultimately serves the needs of the capitalist system. Examples could include:

  • Purchases parents make just keep their kids quiet and simply give themselves time to manage their lives, given that parents do not have enough time at home because they both must work in a Capitalist system. This could include toys and subscriptions to media entertainment packages.
  • Purchase parents make to give their children an advantage in education. In Marxist theory education reproduces class inequality, primarily because the middle classes can buy their kids a better education.
  • Purchases parents make to give their family a sense of status to the outside world – this could be for the family as a whole, such as a better car, or parents giving in to the demands for kids to have the latest status clothes or phone.  
  • Products bought to keep kids ‘safe’, which could be mainly for younger children.
  • A lot of the above will be exacerbated by ‘built in obsolescence’ of many products.

Evidence of the Family perpetuating false needs

This section looks at possible evidence that families purchase ‘shit they don’t need’, giving into false needs, rather than consumption based on real needs.

Some places we might look for evidence include:

  • Case studies of high consumption families, but how representative are they?
  • Stats on advertising expenditure aimed at families and their effectiveness.
  • Stats on family expenditure – trends in how much parents spend on children. and what do parents actually buy?
  • Pester Power – how often do parents give in to their kids nagging?
  • Counter studies – what does an example of a family living in ‘real consciousness’ look like?!?

Keep in mind that there are limitations with all of the evidence below and you can always use your own brain-thing to find your own examples!

My Super Sweet 16

Shows such as ‘My Super Sweet 16’ probably show us the most extreme examples of parents willingly meeting their children’s false needs. An excellent analysis of this is provided my the most excellent Charlie Brooker in the clip below (5.30 mins on)

The problem with such case studies is they are maybe not that representative of families in America, let alone in the UK!?!

According to the FintechTimes children receive almost £20 a month in pocket money, sometimes for doing chores.

According to their research, nine year olds are already well versed in the habit of saving to buy expensive consumer items, as this top chart of products shows:

Whether you regard this as evidence of ‘false needs’ being established from a young age is debatable. Some of the products would fall well within the ‘false need’s category – the Play Station and Slime for example, but others seem quite educational – lego and books seeming to be high up the priority list!

A third of parents say Pester Power has made them take on debt

Corporations know that children Pester parents for toys they want, and so a good deal of advertising has historically been targeted at children. Some recent research from 2018 suggests that a third of parents have given into pester power to the extent that they’ve bought something on credit, just to stop their children nagging.

Parental Expenditure on Education

The average UK parental expenditure on education is almost £25K a year, and that’s over and above the free education provided by the State. Most of this will be by middle class parents trying to give their children an advantage.

Counter Evidence

Don’t forget to look for counter-evidence too – you might want to look up recent restrictions on the power of companies to advertise to children (reducing pester power) or look for examples of ‘frugal families’.

Criticisms of the Marxist view on the family as a unit of consumption

Are parents really in false consciousness, do they really have ‘false’ needs. ?

To what extent are parents under false consciousness and buying ‘shit they don’t need’ for their families and their children, rather than buying stuff because they have made a rational decision?

Some of the safety products for babies may well come under this category – maybe this is a genuine need – maybe it is better to spend £400 on a super safe buggy rather than relying on your parent’s hand me downs?

Individuals might have more false needs than families

I’m also not convinced that the family in particular is the most significant unit of consumption – young adults not yet in families are perfectly capable of buying ‘shit they don’t need’ themselves in their 20s and 30s, and it’s debatable whether their relative expenditure on ‘false need’ type items will be higher when they have families in their 30s 40s and 50s?