The Changing American Family

Dramatic changes in the shape of U.S. families
have left us with old policies in a world of new realities

One of the articles in Caring For Families (IC#21)
Originally published in Spring 1989 on page 13
Copyright (c)1989, 1997 by Context Institute

s we head into the 21st century, changes within and among families in the U.S. are striking at the heart of our notions about life and the way it functions. Such things as longer life spans, the advent of safe and effective birth control, women’s increasing participation in the paid labor force, and a dramatic increase in divorce rates are reshaping family life in the late 20th century. The new realities of family life are in sharp contrast with idealized notions of the family that have developed over centuries. Conflicts in the way we perceive the family are creating profound contradictions in public policy. If the family is to be a healthy component in society, as it must be for society to survive, we need to understand anew what family is and what it is becoming.


The range of variation in "families" throughout history and across cultures is enormous. Nevertheless, there are certain major themes within all this variation: Families are a set of primary relationships – biological, emotional, social, economic, and legal. Families are also a collection of individuals with differing needs and concerns living in complicated relationships with each other and with society. Families generally are expected to provide their members mutual economic, physical, and emotional support, meeting the human needs for food, shelter, and intimacy. Families also carry on tradition and culture and, in some instances, pass on property to the next generation.

If our discussions of families began from this broad understanding, we would have a useful starting point. Unfortunately, many discussions about families, and much of our policy and literature, assume a much more narrow definition of a "normal" family: a caretaking mother, breadwinning father, and one or more minor children. Many of today’s senior citizens formed such families and many middle-aged adults grew up in them, but the composition and characteristics of families have changed considerably since World War II, especially in the last two decades. Although close to 75% of U.S. citizens still live in family-based households (see figure below):

  • Only 9% of U.S. households fit that old definition of the "normal" family.
  • A majority of families have no children under age 18.
  • More than 25% of all families with children are single parent families; almost all of these have a female head of the household.
  • 72% of women in the child-bearing years are employed. By 1995, labor force statisticians predict the proportion will increase to 81%.
  • Out of wedlock births (often by older women) are now about 20% of all births and virtually all such children are kept by the mother rather than put up for adoption.
  • For the first time, the U.S. is generationally top-heavy: there are more grandparents than grandchildren.



A major factor affecting all these statistics has been the steady shift of women into the paid labor force. This profound shift has happened within a single human lifespan, too fast for many of our institutions and attitudes to keep pace. A large number of today’s older senior citizen women have been dependent housewives for most of their adult lives. They were raised expecting to find a husband who could support them, and for a majority of this generation the breadwinning husband/caretaking wife model worked.

Their daughters were often employed before their marriage and until they had children. After the children were in school, many reentered the workforce, demonstrating that their involvement in the workforce was not a temporary aberration. In 1965, 41.1% of women aged 35-44 were in the paid labor force. Twenty-one years later this same cohort of women (now 55-64 years old) were represented in almost the same proportion, 42.3%. (An interesting question is to what extent these were the same women being employed or whether individual women moved in and out of the labor force depending on family circumstances.)

The younger sisters of this age cohort followed their elders’ example and added momentum to the trend. In 1965, 38.5% of women aged 25-34 were in the paid labor force. By 1986 this same group – then aged 45-55 – had a 66.3% rate. These women were obviously more dedicated to paid employment than is commonly believed, but society still maintained the fiction that women were caretakers and men were breadwinners.

What’s interesting – but not often perceived or discussed – is that as women’s employment has increased, men’s employment has decreased. During the last 25 years women’s employment has increased by 30% or more in every age category up to age 55 while men’s employment has declined in every age group over age 25. This trend represents a profound shift in lifestyles and contradicts long-held cultural assumptions.


There are strong economic forces at work behind this shift. For a great majority of younger families, it is no longer practical to think in terms of a "family wage" – enough income from one wage earner to support a family, the children’s education and the couple’s retirement. Virtually every younger family (and many older ones) now assumes that the wife and mother can – and must – be an economic contributor to the family.

Family income has dropped over the last decade and a half, unless there is a second earner. In February, 1988, the Congressional Budget Office released a report: "Trends in Family Income: 1970-1986." Staff of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Committee on Children, Youth and Families analyzed these findings and concluded that although "family income for the typical family rose during this period … income gains were not evenly distributed. Low income families with children, young families at all income levels and poor single mother families in 1986 were much worse off than their counterparts in 1970." The main reason family incomes rose was "the increased number of workers per family, not increased earnings by the typical worker. Many families with children have needed to have both parents work to avoid losing ground."

By contrast, among "elderly unrelated individuals and elderly families without children, median family income rose 50%." Noting that "earnings failed to keep pace with inflation for many workers, especially those in the younger age groups," the analysts found that "adding a second earner to the workforce or increasing the second earner’s work hours was often necessary to keep family income from falling…. These altered work arrangements have resulted in parents (especially mothers) having less time with children, less leisure time, and possibly, fewer children." (italics added).

Even if the family wage concept were an actuality, the incidence of divorce (and the record of support and maintenance awards and payments after divorce) indicate to women of all ages that there are no public or private guarantees of economic support in exchange for carrying out the caretaker role. Paid employment outside the home is now the accepted form of self-insurance for women as well as men. Fringe benefits such as health insurance and social security are an almost mandatory element of self-sufficiency when increasing life spans are taken into account.

Yet while women have moved into the paid workforce in such numbers that employment is no longer gender-based, the care and maintenance of household and children generally has remained the province of women. The physical and emotional work of maintaining families, especially those with young children (who require years of almost constant supervision and nurture), is very demanding, but it is only just beginning to be appreciated by policy makers and society at large.

The changing relationship to work is also changing the pattern of rights and expectations within marriage. Despite strong cultural traditions and the need of most humans for intimate relationships, it is increasingly clear that individuals who are required to be economically self-sufficient have less tolerance for unequal familial relationships than those who are economically dependent. As women’s attachment to the paid labor force grows stronger, they are asserting their rights to power and control in family decision-making more vigorously. When those rights are not respected, many women either do not enter into, or depart from, what they consider intolerable family relationships. Men do the same.

The questions raised by these shifts are profound and disturbing. Can we still rely on families, as we have in the past, to produce healthy and effective workers and citizens when it often takes two earners to support a young family? Where will the time and effort for family life come from? Even more so for the 27% of U.S. families with children and only one adult, most often a mother: where does the time, energy and money come from to raise those children? According to 1987 Census reports, 20% of U.S. children lived in poverty in 1986 (up from 1978), with children under age six most at risk. A majority – 51.4% – of families below the poverty line were female-headed, illustrating the difficulties posed when women alone try to maintain families, assuming both the caretaking and breadwinning roles.

In response to these shifts, will increasing numbers of young women reject marriage or motherhood, the creation of new families, because of their desire and ability to gain better security and status through paid employment? Will those who have little hope or expectation of paid employment be the major procreators? Or will standards and norms about work and family change? Will men share the caretaking and household maintenance functions as women share the breadwinning function? Will women give up control inside the household? Who will care for and nurture the young as both men and women work for pay? Will society, to preserve and regenerate itself, devise ways to help care for the vulnerable young as they have for the vulnerable old?


As the 21st century approaches, the time and energy required for child bearing and rearing, the importance of intimate relationships, and the need for family policies that take into account the diversity and changing nature of American families will need to be increasingly understood and appreciated if our society is to survive. Caretaking for the next generation can no longer be assumed to be a "free good" with the costs borne almost solely by individual parents or families.

Child bearing is now an option. That option must be made more attractive and less expensive to the individual and to families, or additional numbers of women and families will limit their child bearing. We must also face the reality that human young are vulnerable for years, and that effective child rearing is mandatory for a humane society. Lip service does not buy groceries or assure a child’s development into a competent and satisfied adult. A new social compact between men and women, between rich and poor, between generations, and between society and the family will need to be devised. The elements of that compact are still unclear; what is clear is that women are in the paid labor force to stay, at least for a major portion of their adult lives.

Some steps have already been taken or are being discussed; for example, maternity and paternity leave, child care subsidies or tax credits, extra tax deductions for families with children, and the quality of education have been put on the public agenda. There are signs of a new generation of "working fathers" – men deeply involved with their children, caring for them as mothers have always done – and even "househusbands." Such men are still rare enough, however, to be remarkable; and unfortunately they are often ostracized.

What is also remarkable is the resistance among many women to giving up control of the caretaking role in families. Even though women’s work in the home has been demeaned, the home was still the "province of women" where they had a measure of power, some social value, and often a sense of satisfaction. An important question for the future is whether women will be willing to give up control in the home in order to gain greater power in the workplace and the public arena.

In the next century the child-bearing and child-rearing years may well be considered as valued a time of life as the retirement years. It is possible that workers who are the parents of young children may be encouraged to take a kind of sabbatical, dividing their time between family care, part-time employment, and further education or training. Parents of young children may be allowed and encouraged to collect some of their social security during the regenerative years.

The work week may be shortened and employment patterns over a lifetime may continue to change for both males and females to accommodate changes in family circumstances. Health care support for the young and their parents may become as accepted as Medicare and public education. As people live longer, patterns of living, working, and thinking about one’s lifetime will continue to change. More men may find diversity in work and family life as satisfying and challenging as have some of the current generation of mothers and grandmothers. Equality between men and women, once tasted and experimented with, may be appreciated and even savored.

We may understand and acknowledge the fact that raising a child and participating in family life breeds wisdom and satisfaction. Caretaking also teaches skills like management, prioritizing, and negotiation that are transferable and might be rewarded in the future, or at least valued. As family life and children – the future incarnate – become more fully appreciated, new concepts of success may emerge that equate the successful raising of children with career achievement.

People of all shades of the political and racial spectrum live in families. Let us hope that we can use this common ground on behalf of families and children as a basis for new social innovations in the 21st century comparable to the technological advances of the 20th century.

Arvonne Fraser is a Senior Fellow at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota.

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