How Has the SmartPhone Impacted Intimate Relationships?

The majority of couples in longer term relationships use their smart phones primarily to ‘keep base’ with the partners during periods when they are not together, and manage to successfully negotiate rules to minimise the use of their phones when they are together.

However, for a minority of couples excessive Smart Phone usage when together can drive the couple apart due to jealously with one partner not knowing what the other person is doing when they are on their phone.

This is according to Mark McCormack, Professor of Sociology at the University of Roehampton, who recently completed some research on this topic based on In-depth interviews with 30 people all of whom had been in heterosexual relationships for at least one year.

The sample included a wide range of ages, social class backgrounds and ethnicities. 

Below I summarise this research which is most relevant to the Families and Households module.

Keeping Couples Together when Apart and Driving them Apart when Together

Smartphones are an integral part of contemporary relationships – especially at the start of relationships. 

Private messaging on apps such as WhatsApp was especially important in the early stages of relationships (the ‘dating phase’) when someone’s chat skills were one of the factors that determined whether or not there would be a second, third, or fourth (and so on) date… 

Later on in relationships smartphones were essential for ’keeping base’ with couples who either weren’t living together or who just had long work days. 

The idea that smart phones prevent intimate couple conversations because both partners are hunched independently over their phones when in at home or in a restaurant (for example) emerged as something of a myth… 

Rather, one participant said that she didn’t know what couples used to talk about before SmartPhones seeing them as essential to keeping conversations going by checking in on what was going on elsewhere (keeping up with the gossip, maybe, for example). 

One third of respondents had done flirtatious texting, fewer had sent over more explicit material such as videos – but a significant minority said their phones helped them keep intimate when apart and helped them view sex in a different (enhancing) way. 

For a minority of participants phones had the potential for undermining trust, especially among younger females. 

Some felt that the  the phone sometimes got in the way of face to face conversations with their partners and there was some feelings of jealousy and worrying about what partners were doing online when they weren’t speaking to them. 

A few of these respondents expressed concern about the fact that the delete button is so easy, easy to hide one’s tracks online, but very few people spoke of their partners actually cheating as a result of being online.  

McCormac developed the concept of ‘Technoference’ to describe one further negative impact of phones on relationships – when phones disrupt face to face intimate conversations. 

One respondent talked of being so into Candy Crush at times that she wasn’t following conversations properly.  Another talked of playing games on hist phone behind his girlfriend’s heads while giving her a hug. 

A further downside was the experience of sitting in bed together but living in different worlds – her on FaceBook and him on a Sports App. 

Over time messages got less exciting in nature, and less frequent, and more about mundane things such as reminders about what to pick up from the supermarket, but ‘checking-in’ quickly remained constant. 

One respondent saw these quick and infrequent check-ins as sad given that in the early days of the relationship her and her partner had been exchanging a lot more texts and images 

Some respondents also talked of sex having been interrupted to answer a phone call – or using their smartphones as a strategy to delay or avoid sex. 

Many respondents had developed strategies to manage their smartphone use when together. A couple of examples of rules included buying alarms for the bedroom so phones couldn’t come up less drastic was the no phones at candle lit dinners rule.

A minority of respondents felt the conversation about management had itself caused tensions – with one partner feeling the other was trying to be more controlling. 

Ultimately, communication was seen as they key for successfully negotiating smartphone usage in intimate relationships.

Find out More:

The full research article is here: Keeping couples together when they’re apart and driving them apart when they’re together, but thanks to the totally unreasonable accessibility limitations you often get with academic articles, you have to request access so this isn’t freely available.

However you can listen to a summary of the research on this excellent Thinking Allowed Podcast, which I listened to and summarised in the form of this blog post.

Relevance to A-level sociology 

This is most relevant to the families and households module, and is a good example of how relationships are changing in a postmodern world due to technology. 

This is also a good example of in-depth micro-level research and the results demonstrate how we can’t understand the impact of technology on couples and relationships without asking people.

It also shows how couples are active agents I their lives – most seem to have been able to use smartphones to positively enhance their relationships, and to have negotiated strategies to avoid the potential negative impacts. 

So this study is a good-fit with perspectives which argue that postmodern family life is complex, diverse, negotiated – such as the late modernist Ulrich Beck and his idea of the negotiated family as the norm, and also the Personal Life Perspective

Image Source.

How has increased choice in personal life affected family structures in the UK today?

This question recently came up on the June 2022 A-level sociology exam paper two, the families and household topic.

It was one of the 10 mark questions which linked to an item, as follows:

‘People have more choice today than in the past over who they can be in a personal relationship with. They also have more choice when a relationship ends.

This increased choice in personal life has affected family structures in the UK today’.

Then the question: Applying material from Item C, analyse two effects the increased choice in personal life has had on family structures in the UK today.

How to answer this question

It should be quite easy to spot the two hooks in the item:

  • choice over WHO one can be in a relationship with.
  • choice over when the relationship ends.

So these are going to form the basis of your two points and the fact that the question refers to ‘family structures’ in the plural gives you plenty of options to develop each point.

Although be careful not to repeat yourself too much!

AND REMEMBER – THERE ARE NO MARKS FOR EVALUATION IN THESE 10 MARK WITH THE ITEM QUESTIONS!

Suggested answer

The answer below should get 10/10.

The fact that there is more personal choice over WHO one can be in a relationship with (as it says in the item) means there is more diversity in partnerships today.

In the 1950s the vast majority of couples were heterosexual leading to the norm of the cereal packet family, one man, one women and their children.

With the increasing acceptance that sexuality is a matter of personal choice, however, there are now a higher proportion of openly gay couples, however despite the law changing so that adoption agencies cannot discriminate against non-heterosexual couples, gay couples are still much less likely to have children than heterosexual couples, which is a change in family structure.

It’s not just sexuality over which people have more choice – people are more free today to get involved intimately with people from other ethnic backgrounds, meaning there are more ethnically mixed families today.

And people can also choose more long distant relationships with people in other countries, meaning families are more stretched globally.

It’s not just about partners either, people have more choice over whether or when to have children, meaning there are more childless families.

A second way people have more choice in relationships is ‘when to end them’ as it says in item C. This ties into Ulrich Beck’s concept of the negotiated family – because relationships are now a choice, people have to spend more time negotiating the rules of family life, such as whether they should get married and what ‘structure’ that family might take (how many kids to have, or whether to have them at all, for example, which has resulted in more diversity of family structures with increasing amounts of co-habitation, and childless families for example, but also still many families having children.

It also ties into Giddens concept of the pure relationship – people are in a relationship for the sake of the relationship, not because of tradition or a sense of duty – this means, because being in a relationship is now a choice, that they can end if just one person isn’t happy.

This in turn can lead to more relationship breakdowns and there are more step-families today and complex relationships such as the Divorce Extended Family identified by Judith Stacey – where it is mainly women who make the effort to keep in touch which ex-partners and children.

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How has Increased Life Expectancy Affected the Experience of Childhood…?

Life expectancy in England and Wales has risen dramatically over the last 100 years, increasing from around 55 in 1920 to 80 today for men and from 60 to 83 today for women. …

This means that children who grew up in the 1920s and 1930s would, on average, not have had the experience of being around many people over the age 60, whereas today, on average, children will experience the company of people aged 60-85 as ‘the norm’.

I am talking here of course just about ‘averages’ – experiences will vary from family to family.

For those parents who have children at a younger age, say in their 20s, their children stand much more chance of experiencing a four generation family, something which would have been almost unheard of in the 1920s.

However, three generation families would still have been common 100 years ago because people typically had babies much earlier, meaning children would still have experienced grandparents, but those grandparents would have been younger, in their 50s rather than in their 70s which would be the case in the typical three generation family today.

I think with the increase in family diversity, the increase in life expectancy would mean different experiences with grandparents for children depending on the type of family… for those parents who have children young then children are far more likely to experience grandparents in good health for their entire childhood and maybe only have to deal with their death as older teenagers, whereas experiencing the death of a grandparent during childhood would have been much more common 100 years ago.

HOWEVER, for those parents who have children later, in their 40s, probably dealing with the death of a grandparent would be more likely.

A possible negative affect of the ageing population on the experience of childhood is that parents who have to care for their ageing parents may not have as much time for their children, especially if end of life care is dragged out for several months or years as can be the case with degenerative diseases which are more common in old age.

The experience of childhood may also have been indirectly affected by wider social changes brought about by the ageing population – as society has refocussed its resources towards caring for the old (some might even say pandering to the old) there are relatively fewer resources left for children, so funding in education suffers as does Higher Education with students now having to pay for it themselves.

So as children get older they may start to feel like society is set up for the old and they get very little back in return – other than facing a life of working for 50 years as young adults in order to pay for the ever increasing ratio of old to young (the ‘dependency ratio’).

We kind of saw this with the Covid-19 pandemic – society was focused on protecting the very old while schools just closed – the children suffered for the sake of the old – the experience of childhood here was one of blocked opportunities and increased fear and uncertainty caused, effectively by the government’s choice to put the over 70s first – had the Pandemic happened in the 1920s when there were hardly any over 60s alive anyway society wouldn’t have had to shut down to protect them, because the risk of dying from covid for the under 60s was significantly lower.

Relevance to A-level sociology

This question cam up in the June 2022 families and households paper two exam.

This is a response I free wrote in around 15 minutes to give students some ideas about how they might have answered it. NB it’s not formatted like an answer to a 10 mark question should be, but there is enough information in here to top band I would have thought – there are certainly TWO ways fleshed out!

The relationship of the family to the social structure and social change

The pre-release information for the 2022 A-level sociology exam from the AQA selected the relationship of the family to the social structure and social change as the topic area that WILL come up for the 20 mark essay.

NB we are talking here about the Paper 2 exam: topics in sociology the families and households option, and this post is just a reminder of the core content that comes within this sub-topic!

What is the social structure?

The idea of a social structure is most commonly associated with the two classic sociological perspectives Funtionalism and Marxism:

  • Functionalists argue that society is structured through institutions which all perform specific functions, all working together to maintain the whole system of society – like organs in a body (the ‘organic analogy’) – the family is seen as playing a crucial role in (obviously?) the reproduction of the next generation.
  • Marxists see the social structure as being organised along social class lines – with the bourgeoisie exercising control over the major institutions of society
  • Feminism has a more complex view of the social structure whether you’re talking about Liberal, Marxist or Radical.
  • Postmodernists and Late Modernists suggest the social structure which Marxists and Functionalists refer too is much more fluid than it used to be and that it constrains the individual much less today than in the late 19th and mid 20th centuries when Marxists and Functionalists did most of their writing.

Recent social changes you might consider….

The social changes associated with the shift from modernity to postmodernity are what you could address, such as:

  • Globalisation
  • The breakdown/ increasing fluidity of social structure
  • More individual freedom and choice

The relationship of the family to the social structure

The ‘classic’ approach to this topic is to address it through the main sociological perspectives, and if you know what the different perspectives think about the family and social structure, you SHOULD automatically be addressing social change at the same time, as the two are fundamentally related.

The rest of this post offers a brief summary of what the main sociological perspectives have to say on this topic.

for further details and especially evaluations be sure to check out the linked posts below!

The Functionalist view on the family and social structure

Talcot Parsons developed the Functional Fit Theory to explain how the main type of family changed from the extended family to the nuclear family with the shift from pre-industrial to industrial society.

He argued that the nuclear family better fitted the needs of an industrial society because it was smaller and more mobile, and the changes with industrialisation meant that families needed to be able to move around more easily.

He also argued that the family in industrial society had to perform fewer functions than in industrial society because other institutions developed to perform functions more efficiently than the old extended family could – schools for education, for example.

The family in industrial society performs only two functions – the stabilisation of adult personalties (emotional security) and reproduction.

Find out more here: The Functionalist view of the family.

The Marxist view of the family and social structure

This stands in direct contrast to the Functionalist view – the nuclear family emerges with industrialisation, according to Engles, but only to legitimise the passing on of property down to the next generation – with Capitalism, there are now wealthy people and the family unit makes sure their new wealth stays in the family.

Before Capitalism Engles argued that families were a kind of ‘promiscuous hoard’ – when there was no property people cared for children collectively – it’s only when SOME families have property under capitalism that the nuclear family emerges.

Later Marxists suggest the nuclear family continues to perform functions for Capitalism by becoming a unit of consumption, for example.

Find out more: The Marxist Perspective on the Family.

The Radical Feminist view on the Nuclear Family

Radical Feminists see the nuclear family as the main institution which keeps Patriarchy going.

The traditional nuclear family and the ideology of the housewife role for women keeps women in the domestic sphere and out of the work place, preventing them from developing financial independence and limiting them to a caring role and a life of dull-drudgery.

Moreover, women are effectively exploited with the nuclear family, and far from the family being a safe haven, domestic abuse within family life is a common, yet hidden feature of many relationships.

A core belief of radical feminism is that the nuclear family needs to be broken down and women are better off seeking alternative relationships.

Find out more: The Radical Feminist View of the Family.

Post and Late Modernism

Writing since the 1980s, Postmodernists argue that there is no such thing as a normal family anymore – rather, family diversity is now the norm – with there being more variety of families than ever before – as shown by the increase in single person households and single parent households for example.

For postmodernists, every aspect of family life is a choice – and hence we see people getting married and starting families later and divorce rates persistently high.

Late Modernists suggest it is not as simple as family life being all about choice – rather social life today makes holding down a relationship and having a stable family life more difficult – people still want these things, but busy working lives and constant distractions make family life much more difficult.

Find out More

This has been just a quick reminder post, be sure to check out the linked blog posts for further details.

Be sure to check out the New Right and Personal Life Perspective too!

Also, remember that the specific question you get asked could be either broad or very narrow, AND the 10 mark questions will probably be from other areas of the module!

Why is the Birth Rate in England and Wales Declining?

The latest statistics rom the ONS show that half of all women now remain childless until they are 30, which reflects a longer term trend of declining birth rates in England and Wales.

In fact, birth rates have been declining for around 10 years now, previous to which they had been increasing, but why is this?

This topic is an update relevant to the Families and Households module.

Why have birth rates been declining for the last decade?

Writing in The Guardian, Poly Toynbee identifies two main reasons to do with increasing economic hardship and Conservative austerity policies which fail to make work attractive for women with children.

She notes that the dip in the birth rate started when The Coalition government introduced their austerity policies in 2012, and this meant heavy cuts to child services, such as Sure Start, making it less appealing to have children.

But mainly this change seems to be about economic factors – people have fewer children when they think there are going to be tough economic times ahead – and our economies been creaking for years, especially if we look at the cost of housing.

You may think that the chosen social response to the Pandemic that was Lockdown would have encouraged people to have more children, as work has become more home-based, but the reality of this for women was having to balance home working and home schooling.

And now there’s more uncertainty than ever going forwards – about the Pandemic, about the economy, and, frankly, who can blame anyone for not wanting to bring children into this new post-pandemic world of ours.

NB…. this could have dire consequences ten years down the line for our ageing population, now there will be even fewer working age to retired people.

Sources/ Find out More.

I heard about the ‘half of all women are childless until 30’ stat on Radio Four this morning.

The latest ONS figures on birth and death rates.

Changing Family Values in the UK

Attitudes to family life in the UK and Europe have become more liberal in the last decade

Attitudes towards family life have become more ‘postmodern’ and less conservative between 2006/07 and 2018/19.

According to the latest British Social Attitudes Survey which measures ‘family values’ by five questions about whether individuals approve or disapprove about different aspects of family life:

  • remaining childless (disapproval fell from 8% to 6% in the last ten years)
  • cohabitation (disapproval fell from 14 to 8%)
  • having children while cohabiting (out of marriage) (21 to 12%)
  • Being in full time work with children under three (20 to 11%)
  • Divorce with children under 12 (disapproval fell from 28% to 16%)

What this shows us is that individual values about family life have become more Post/ Late Modern over the last decade – many of these indicators suggest more individualisation, more support for freedom of choice and (surprisingly) divorcing even with children.

There is also a clear shift away from New Right views with increasing support for cohabitation (rather than marriage) being a suitable family arrangement for raising children.

Older generations dying explain this shift in values

The British social attitudes survey analyses their findings by comparing family values across five generations – split as follows:

  • Born 1901-1927 – the Greatest Generation
  • Born 1928-1945 – the Silent Generation
  • Born 1946-1964 – the Baby Boomers
  • Born 1965-1980 – Generation X
  • Born 1981-1996 – Millennials
  • Born 1997-2012 – Generation Z

Unfortunately this shift towards more liberal family values hasn’t occurred because of (older) people changing their minds and become more tolerant of family diversity, rather it’s because the older generations have died and their traditional family values have died with them.

This is best illustrated if we compare the family values of the oldest and youngest generations:

In the 2006/07 survey there were still large numbers of the ‘Great Generation’ alive (those born between 1901 and 1927) who had VERY conservative values about the family, however by the 2018/19 survey the youngest member of this generation would have been 91 and the oldest 117, resulting in insufficient numbers for a representative sample, hence this generation disappears from the survey results by 2018/19.

While for Generation Z who would have been too young to take part in the survey ten years ago, they now appear in the latest results, albeit in small numbers (because some would still be too young!) and these have much more liberal attitudes.

You can also clearly see the shift towards more liberal values more generally in the chart above.

One final thing to think about is the changing attitudes to working with young children – more people probably think this is OK because they know people increasingly HAVE to work to pay the bills, so it’s not as if this is a matter of choice for most parents with younger children!

Changing European Family Values

The report also compares changing attitudes to family life to changes in other countries in Europe:

Family values are getting more liberal in EVERY European country except Sweden (but that had VERY low disapproval ratings to start with!), suggesting this is a regional trend, although other countries started from a ‘higher base’ of more conservative family values.

Signposting and Related Posts

This post has primarily been written for students of A-level sociology and is relevant to the families and households module.

It seems to be valid evidence showing a shift towards postmodern values and away from new right views on the family and it is also relevant to marriage and divorce and family diversity topics as these trends help explain the decline in marriage and increase in divorce – they show that more people think it’s acceptable to not be married before starting a family and OK to divorce even if you have younger children.

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Sources/ Find out More

The full BSA report on the family is worth a read!

Why some women choose not to have children

Birth rates have been falling for decades, in practically every country on earth. But not only are women having fewer children, more women are remaining childless for their entire lives.

15% of women in the United States now remain childless into their late 40s.

However, this choice to remain child-free isn’t one that comes easy.

The Guardian newspaper recently released some videos of interviews with women of various different ages who have chosen to remain childless reveal the fact that they often have to battle against the social norm that they should become mothers.

All of the women in this video explain that they were brought up with the norm that ‘normal’ women wanted children and would at some point have children.

They say that most of the subtle pressure to have children comes from their families, their own mothers and female relatives, but also their female friends and work colleagues.

If they tell a work colleague that they don’t want kids, the typical response back is that ‘you’ll want them one day’, as if the already-mothers or ‘pro-mums to be’ brush off their ‘not wanting kids’ attitude as temporary insanity, and thus to be disregarded.

One of the interviewees talks about how not having kids was never presented as a choice to her during early socialisation – it wasn’t until she was a teenager that she came across the idea that remaining childless was a legitimate choice for women.

An argument for not having children

In a recent piece written for the Guardian entitled ‘Why I don’t have a child: I cherish my freedom‘ Ann Neumann argues for the benefits of not having children.

She starts off pointing out the obvious freedoms that come with being childless – such as being able to pick up and move and switch jobs/ set up businesses/ go travelling whenever she likes, but she also says she has found freedom in a more profound sense – the freedom to be creative and to pursue and to develop her own career as she sees fit.

Finally, Neumann says that having remained child-free until her menopause has given her a fresh perspective on the whole status of childless women, and she presents a broadly radical-feminist that sees becoming a mother as the main event that locks women into traditionally gendered carer-roles , chained because they are mothers.

She also reminds us that all other things being equal it is much easier to free yourself form an abusive relationship if you have your own income, which is much more likely if you are not a mother!

There is a cost to remaining childless:

Women who remain childless have to pay for it:

  • Quite literally pay for contraception, and possibly abortions (she’s had two)
  • You have to be mentally disciplined enough to stick to a contraceptive routine.
  • You have to put up with the ‘too-personal inquiries’ in to why you’ve never had children (our female bodies are never our own),
  • And you have to suffer the loss of social status that comes with being motherless, as ‘mothers are the moral future of the nation’.

Relevance to A-level sociology

This would fit right in with the ‘Feminist theory‘ of the family, and is also of relevance to changing family patterns (declining birth rates) in the sociology of the family.

A-level sociology families and households: course summary, schemes of work and lesson plans

I’ve been consolidating my A-level sociology planning recently, and I’ve concluded it’s useful to have several different versions of module summaries and schemes of work, as below:

  • A mind map overview/ summary
  • A Power Point overview/ summary
  • A brief scheme of work
  • A long scheme of work
  • Detailed individual lesson plans.

All of these are based on the AQA’s specification, for the families and households topic.

Mind map overview of education

This is mind map number 1, the Borg equivalent of Unimatrix Zero. There are many other mind maps which branch off it – each colour thread itself becomes the central focus for more mind maps!

Power Point overview of education

Should need no explanation, about as brief as it can get.

Brief education Families Scheme of Work

A very brief version to be displayed in classrooms, an at a glance’ version so students can see where they are in the course and what’s coming next.

Long education Families Scheme of Work

This is a grid consisting of sub-topics, concepts, research studies, assessment and resources for each sup-topic. This more in-depth version follows the AQA specification rigidly and should include everything students need to know.

NB this is slightly different to the overview and lesson plans as some ‘lessons’ go beyond the specification or fuse different areas of it together.

Detailed Lesson Plans  

These are really for teachers only, and contain detailed minute by minute lesson plans with aims and objectives, resources and extension ideas.

New Resource: Families and Households teaching bundle for A-level sociology

All of the above are available as part of my ‘sociology of education teaching bundle’. One downloadable bundle including fully modifiable teaching resources in Microsoft Word and PowerPoint. Only £49.95, or as part of a monthly subscription package for £9.99 a month!

The bundle includes:

  • A detailed scheme of work covering the entire AQA specification for the families and households topic 
  • 24 detailed lesson plans (topics below)
  • Seven student work packs on Perspectives, class, gender, ethnicity and education policies. 
  • PowerPoints to accompany most lessons. 
  • Activities such as role play games, sentence sorts, gap fills. 

NB I have had to remove most of the pictures from these materials for copyright reasons, but the idea is that you can always add these in yourself to beautify them!

Lessons covered:

  1. An introduction to the sociology of families and households
  2. The Functionalist perspective on the family
  3. The Marxist perspective on the family
  4. The Marxist/ Feminist perspectives on the family
  5. The Feminist perspective on the family
  6. The New Right view of the family
  7. The Postmodern and Personal Life Perspective on the family
  8. Consolidation Families and households Assessment Lesson – focussing on evaluation skills and essay writing.
  9. Exploring and explaining trends in marriage
  10. Exploring and explaining trends in divorce
  11. Evaluating sociological perspectives on marriage and divorce
  12. Exploring and explaining increasing family diversity – ‘organisational diversity’
  13. Exploring family diversity by social class, ethnicity, and sexuality
  14. Evaluating the view that families are becoming more diverse
  15. Power in relationships: housework and childcare
  16. Power in relationships: perspectives on domestic violence
  17. Is Childhood Socially Constructed?
  18. Evaluating the March of Progress View of Childhood
  19. Is Childhood Disappearing?
  20. Birth and Death Rates
  21. The challenges of the Ageing Population
  22. Migration and family life
  23. Social Policies and family life 1
  24. Social Policies and family life 2

The Handmaid’s Tale – Possible in Real Life?

The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel written by Margaret Atwood in 1985.

This might be a novel, but it’s a useful way to introduce social policy and the family! It’s also an example of a type of secondary qualitative data!

The novel is set in the United States and imagines a future where the majority of women have been rendered infertile because of environmental toxins, and the few women left who are fertile and able to bare children have become ‘handmaids’.

‘Handmaids’ are given to elite families, required to have ritualistic sex with the male heads of households so that they can bear the families children.

The country is run by a totalitarian state (called ‘Gillead’) which subscribes to a conservative christian ideology and maintains tight control over many aspects of people’s lives, but especially the Handmaids – these are brought up in ‘convent like’ schools, and educated into their role as ‘breeders’ – they effectively get passed around from elite family to elite family to bear multiple children for them.

The novel is told through the eyes of the main character, Offred. What is particularly bleak is that Offred remembers life before Gilead, when things were relatively normal – declining fertility rates eventually lead to a slide into this totatlitarian control over women.

The novel is nicely summarized in the video below.


You can also watch the TV adaptation on More 4 here.

Social Policy and the Family in the Handmaid’s Tale

Government policy towards families is extremely controlling of women in htis novel. The Gilead Theocratic State has near total control over women’s reproduction – fertile women effectively have no right to control their own fertility – that right is given to the elite families.

Fertile women also have no right over their children, these are given away to the families the Handmaid belongs to.

Could this level of control over women happen in real life?

Atwood refers to her novel as ‘speculative fiction’ – a situation which could happen in the future.

The book was a commentary on the political and social climate of the United States in the 1980s, with the widespread embrace of conservatism, as evidenced by the election of Ronald Reagan as president, the increasing power of the Christian right and its powerful lobbying organisations such as the ‘Moral Majority’ and ‘Focus on the Family’, as well as the rise of televangelism.

Commentators such as Joyce Carol Oates and English professor SC Neuman have suggested that the book is a Feminist crititique of the attempted restriction of women’s reproductive rights which various Christian Fundamentalist lobby groups were trying to bring into law – such as giving civil rights protections to foetuses, which would have effectively made abortion illegal.

Atwood herself says that the Handmaid’s Tale was inspired by two real world social polices:

  • Nicolai Ceausescu’s preoccupation with boosting female birth rates in Romania, which led to the policing of pregnant women and the banning of abortion and birth control
  • The idea of ‘giving’ the offspring of lower classes to the ruling class came from Argentina, where a military junta seized power in 1976, subsequently ‘disappearing’ up to 500 children and placing them with selected leaders.

The Handmaid’s Tale: Even more relevant today?

The handmaid’s tale might be even more relvant today given the recent shift in US politics with the election of Donald Trump dovetailing with fears of Trump’s authoritarian tendencies and his vice president’s anti-gay and anti-abortion beliefs.

Handmaid costumes even became common at protests of laws intended to limit women’s reproductive freedom.

Sources: Some of this post was adapted from this blog post.

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Britain’s Ageing Population – Is it a Problem?

This post provides an overview of statistics on Britain’s ageing population before looking at some of the problems associated with this trend, including the increased strain on health services and increased burden on young people. It also asks whether the ageing population is actually a problem or not?

Statistics on the Ageing Population

  • In 1998, around one in six people were 65 years and over (15.9% of the population )
  • In 2020, approximately in five people are aged 65 years and over
  • By 2038 it is protected that around one in every four people (24.2%) will be aged 65 and over.

Population Pyramids

These are a nice way of demonstrating Britain’s changing population structure:

The UK’s Age Structure in 1998

The UK’s Age Structure in 2038 (projected)

If you look at the above two population pyramids, you can clearly see a ‘bulge’ around age 30 in 1998, which has disappeared in 2038.

The age structure in 2038 is a much more even, and less like a pyramid.

This is simply a result of people getting older and fewer babies being born (the declining birth rate over the last few decades).

The Dependency Ratio

The Dependency Ratio refers to the number of people of working age in relation to the number of people of non-working age. The later group includes children and people of pensionable age, in 2020 that means everone aged over 65. In the 1990s there used to be

The Office for National Statistics uses this measurement, which is the number of people of pensionable age in relation to those aged 16-64 (working age) per thousand.

The old age dependency ratio was 300:1000 (3.3 workers to each pensioner) in 1992 , it is project to increase to 400:1000 (2.5 workers to each pensioner) by 2067.

The problem of the increasing dependency ratio

Every pensioner in the UK is entitled to a state pension and a range of other ‘free at the point of use’ public services, mainly health-care. These are paid for by taxes on the income of current workers, and the fewer workers to pensioners, the more each worker has to be taxed to pay for pensions and services used by pensioners.

All other things remaining equal, taxes are going to have to increase by 25% based on the above change in the dependency ratio.

One possible way of combating this problem is for more people of pensionable age to work, and in fact this is already happening – the economic activity levels of the over 65s has doubled in the last few decades:

An increased strain on public services

Increasing numbers of pensioners puts a strain on the NHS because pensioners use health services more than younger people.

With increasing numbers of pensioners ‘sucking money’ out of the welfare state’ there is less left for everything else – services for the young are being cut to compensate

This is because healthy life expectancy is not keeping pace with life-expectancy, and there are increasing numbers of people in their 80s who spend several years with chronic physical conditions such as arthritis, and also dementia both of which require intensive social care.

While the ageing population presents problems, there are solutions – such as improving education about how to stay healthy in later life, changing ideas about working so that people are able to work for longer could be part of the solution.

Problems for younger people

People in their 50s have become a ‘sandwich generation’ – they are now caught between having to provide care for their elderly parents, while still having their 20 something children living at home.

However, things are even worse for today’s teenagers – the retirement aged has now been pushed back to 68 – young people today are going to have to retire much later than their current grandparents.

While the ageing population presents problems, there are solutions – such as improving education about how to stay healthy in later life, changing ideas about working so that people are able to work for longer could be part of the solution.

Arguments against the view that the ageing population is a problem

We ned to be careful not to exaggerate the extend to which old people are a ‘burden’ on society, these often come from stereotypical ways of thinking about age. Not all old people are incapable or in poor health! Most older people live healthy lives into old age and increasing numbers of the over 65s are economically active.

Effective long-term planning and forward-looking social policy changes today can help reduce some of the problems associated with the dependency ratio, such as raising the state pension age.

Marxists think attitudes to old age are influenced by capitalism. Marxist suggest that age groups are defined by the capitalist system. For example, adults are people of working age, and the elderly are told old to work. Philipson (1982) capitalism views the elderly as burden on society. This is because their working life has ended, and they usually have less spending power. Therefore, old age become stigmatised in society.

Postmodernists argue attitudes to age are changing. Magazine, advertisers and the media generally often portray “youthful” old age – old people enjoying holidays, sport, wearing fashionable clothes etc. People can also mask their old age through plastic surgery. The strict identity of old age no longer exists.

Sources

Related posts

The aging population is a consequence of the declining death rate, and the increasing dependency ratio is a consequence of this plus the declining birth rate. Hence these two posts might be worth reviewing:

For some extension work, you might like this: The consequences of an ageing population – summary of a Thinking Allowed Podcast from 2015 which focuses on the challenges of a future in which increasing numbers of people will be aged over 70.

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