The American Family Dynamically Adaptive Or Consistently Declining

Word Count: 2477 |

Joe Blommel
Debating American Family Life
Michael Hillary

The American Family: Dynamically Adaptive or Consistently Declining?

There has been much discussion concerning the contemporary American family and the ever-increasing complexity by which it is arranged. Some would argue that by simply drawing mainly on U.S. Census data, we could easily sketch the conclusion that there has been an extraordinarily steep declination associated with the American family since the 1960’s. Folks like David Popenoe are quick to identify the consequential attributes of this decline, characteristics, which he believes greatly contribute to many of the societal issues we face as a country today. Others, however, would argue that the American family is simply put, dynamic. It is an adaptable unit, one that is ever changing in order that it may keep pace with the lively and often unstable world with which we live. These two differing viewpoints of the American family have led to much debate concerning the impact the evolution of the family has had and will continue to have on the vitality and sustainability of American society
According to David Popenoe’s article American Family Decline, 1960-1990: A Review and Appraisal, he argues that families have lost functions, power, and authority, that familisim as a cultural value has diminished (Popenoe, 1993). Further, he believes that the recent family decline is much more serious than the decline of the past. He states that this is more serious than any decline in the past because what is breaking up is the nuclear family (Popenoe, 1993). How does Popenoe maintain his argument? Much of his evidence revolves around information available through the U.S. Census Bureau that dates back to 1960. He focuses on a few principal pieces that he feels demonstrates the greatest support for his argument including, number of children, marital roles, family structure and family dissolution, marriage, and non family living.
In reference to the number of children, Popenoe brings to light the traditional idea of the nuclear family that was brought forth with industrialization and urbanization. Popenoe states that one of the features that arose during this time frame was that families had fewer children than prior family types precisely because it valued, and wanted to do more for, each child (Popenoe, 1993). However, since about the late 1950’s, childbearing as an “ideal” has quickly become much less important and to some extent has fallen out of favor. This change is connected with a dramatic, and probably historically unprecedented, decrease in positive feelings toward parenthood and motherhood (Popenoe, 1993) Why are the ideals surrounding children so important? Popenoe argues the declination in the number of children “has significant ramifications for the priority our society gives to children”. Further, he believes that this decrease points to the attitude we have as a culture as to the importance of children in the overall scheme of life (Popenoe, 1993)
In reference to marital roles, it is evident that the majority of children today grow up in a far different atmosphere than did their parents and grandparents thirty or so years ago. Popenoe draws on the fact that the roles, which were thought of as traditional of the nuclear family, have completely changed. The era in which wives were expected to be full-time “housewife-mothers” while the husbands were the income earners seems to be going out of existence. Surely, there are instances in which women continue to play the traditional role, but the majority (59%) of women with children 6 to 17 years of age all are inhabitants of the labor market.
Popenoe points to family structure and marital dissolution as factor in the decline of the family as well. He reacts to these particulars by saying that we have “heavily discarded the basic structure of that family type—two natural parents who stay together for life” (Popenoe, 1993). He goes on to say that not only are we seeing the dissolve of the “traditional nuclear family”, but more threatening is the dissolution and rejection of the basic “nuclear family” in itself. Most alarming, according to Popenoe, is the intense rate at which single parent households have been growing in recent years, 90% of which are headed by women. Why is this number so high? Popenoe believes that one of the main causes for this increase is the wide acceptance of divorce, particularly divorce in which children are involved. “It is true,” according to Popenoe, “that divorce has replaced death as a dissolver of marriages.” (Popenoe, 1993). Finally, there are a greater number of families today that start with just one parent. In what has come to be known as the disappearing act by fathers, children are born out-of-wedlock in which the father then flees the scene. As of 1990, nearly a quarter of all children born are done so without the presence of a father.
From Popenoe’s view, it is clear that family instability has distinguished this era from other eras of the past. It is frightening to come to terms with the idea that a minority of children will grow up in a house with a two-parent family unhindered by marital interruption. Most importantly though, and Popenoe refers to this in his article, because the majority of children grow up in broken homes, they will in turn have a much higher chance as adults of having unstable marriages of their own. The future in this regard does not look bright (McLanahan & Bumpass, 1988).
On the topic of Marriage, Popenoe refers to the retreat from the institution to be another major trend of our time. Not only are people waiting until a later age to get married, but the proportion ever marrying has dropped as well. However, Popenoe feels it is important to point out that the proportion who ever marry and the median age of marriage have returned to the level that they stood at the end of the last century. Also, important to note is the fact that the older ones age at marriage, the less likely they are to end their relationship in divorce. This is true up until the age of about thirty. However, it does not track that societies that have an older average age at marriage have a low divorce rate. Sweden, for example, has the highest age of marriage, but simultaneously maintains the highest divorce rate in the world.
Popenoe’s most important work on this matter comes in the discussion of the psychological character of the marital relationship. He claims that the psychological understanding of marriage was once based on the constitution that a marital relationship was a social obligation, one that led to means for economic security and procreation. Today, marriage is understood as a means of propagating ones self-actualization. Moreover, there is no longer a set of societal standards, norms in which we entrust to the generations that follow. In a sense, marriage has become a faucet, that when it leaks, there is no necessity to fix it. Instead, just disregard and move on.
Finally, non-family living has had an impact on the decline of the family. According to his article, Popenoe it is the retreat from marriage presented in the paragraphs above that is largely to blame in the sharp increases we have seen in residential independence and non-marital cohabitation. He links individuals leaving their homes at an early age as a major factor in the tremendous increase in non-family households and non-family living. He also points out that the number of non-marital couples living together (cohabitation) is steadily increasing. There is a growing body of evidence that suggests that those who choose cohabitation before marriage will be much more prone to divorce.
In closing his argument, Popenoe strikingly states, “those who believe that the family has not declined must logically hold one of two positions—either that the family has strengthened, or that its institutional power within society has remained unchanged.” (Popenoe, 1993) He furthers this notion by making it clear that he believes one will be incredibly hard pressed to find data that would be accommodating of either of these two positions (Popenoe, 1993).
While folks like David Popenoe tend take a bleak approach when discussing both the current and future outlook of the American family, there is another perspective that describes it as dynamic, adaptive, and fully capable of providing balance in a society that is often unbalanced and in constant alteration. The diversity perspective offers a different way of discussing the ideas about the family. Instead of looking at the family form and comparing its functionality to that of the traditional nuclear family, the central task of the diversity perspective is to examine how changes in society affect family forms, family functioning, and family relationships (Zinn, Eitzen and Wells 2008). In response to Popenoe’s arguments, the diversity perspective asks that we take a closer look at the myths that are uncritically held without examination or scrutiny (Crosby, 1985). These myths are often bound with nostalgia, selective perception, and cultural values concerning what is typical and true about the family (Zinn, Eitzen and Wells 2008). It is these glorified myths that camouflage the unavoidable and certain predicaments that face each and every family, and in turn relieve the traditional nuclear family of its true ill characteristics, which in turn create a fictional narrative that never truly existed.
With respect to Popenoe’s first point of argument, the diversity perspective would instead try to understand what is changing in society that is creating this fundamental change in the attitude towards having large families. In looking back throughout history, especially during pre-industrial America, a large family was often seen as necessity in order that life proceeded. Large families were needed to work the farms and take care of the daily duties associated with the business of farming. Even with successful growing seasons, if there was a shortage of labor to work the land, no profits would be made for the season. Considering post-industrial America, because large families were no longer needed, many couples decided that it would not only be in their best interest, but also in the best interest of their children if they limited the number to a smaller amount. This provided the children with not only more resources, but also allowed for more selective attention per child. I think the diversity perspective would parallel and agree with my thoughts that the transition to a smaller family is one that should be considered an adaptation to a trend in which the greater society was going towards. It is once again this ability for families to adapt that renders them capable of survival. Maybe not in following the strict traditional myths that we have become accustom to, but in its own acclimatizing fashion.
In speaking of marital roles, it is evident that they have changed. Considering that even fifty years ago, Husbands were usually the sole bread winners and the overwhelming consensus was that the woman should be the homemaker-housewife, we have obviously done a complete one eighty. Women now are taking on a much greater influence in the household income. Not only does this effect the way in which family life is run (ie: fathers assuming responsibilities regarding upbringing of the children), but it has completely changed the environment, expectations, and in most cases, improved the acceptability of women stepping outside the boundaries of home to pursue other field of work. In other words, it has brought women a much greater freedom and along with that, more rights.
In furthering our understanding and dispelling the myths of the traditional nuclear family, we might be better able to understand why the family structures of today are vastly different from those of previous eras. Moreover, by undertaking a greater knowledge of the non-fictional form of the traditional family, we can better comprehend and recognize why it is that families function how they do today. For instance, we have been taught as a society that the traditional nuclear family is the best there ever was and the best there ever will be. However, the fact of the matter is, the families of the 1950’s were not the mystified units that they are portrayed to be. For example, we dispelled some myths about family life in class. We took a look at the myth of a stable and harmonious family of the past. This myth encompasses both the idea of marital roles and the institution and dissolution of marriage. Granted, the women’s roles were, for the most part, rigidly defined, but who’s to say they were happy with those roles. What is more, how do these roles then affect the attitudes and opinions towards not only herself, but also the marital relationship she is in. I guess I’m saying, maybe in restricting the women’s role to that of housewife/homemaker, we are repressing and not allowing for that individual to become self-actualized. To judge marriage of the past as better than contemporary marriage is to ignore historical changes (Zinn, Eitzen, and Wells 2008). Our challenge today is to avoid nostalgia for a mythic past and examine the real problems facing today’s families (Mintz, 2004). Further, on the divorce subject, it is important to understand that throughout history, families have experienced pressure from outside sources. There has always been desertion by spouses, illegitimate children, and certainly spouse and child abuse. Divorce rates were lower, but this does not mean that love was stronger in the past (Zinn, Eitzen, and Wells 2008).
In closing, when taking into perspective different viewpoints, it is always important to keep an open mind. David Popenoe brings up some legit and shocking statistics that undoubtedly has much relevance in today’s society. In remembering and reviewing the history of our society, we can hopefully gain great insight and knowledge in what has brought us to the point with which we stand as a society today. However, it is equally important to take a stance and allow for our own intelligence and ability to pick apart this complex web that history has entangled us in. It is not justified to simply pull from past experiences and assume that those same ideals and principles are going to rightfully apply today. It is imperative that we recognize the ever changing character of the human being and his ability to adapt to the needs and requests of not only society in its entirety, but also to the needs of the individual. Families of yesterday provided for yesterday. Families of today need to provide the needs of the present. Ever changing, ever dynamic, ever adaptable is the family unit!

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