The University of Chicago News Office
Nov. 24, 1999 Press Contact: William Harms
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w-harms@uchicago.edu
 

Marriage wanes as American families enter new century, University of Chicago research shows

The American family, which has undergone a major transformation in the past generation, is poised to change even more in the coming century. Households will move further away from the family-structure model of a stay-at-home mother, working father, and children, according to a new report from the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.

Because of divorce, cohabitation and single parenthood, a majority of families rearing children in the next century will probably not include the children’s original two parents, said Tom W. Smith, Director of the General Social Survey and author of “The Emerging 21st-Century American Family,” which is being released Wednesday, Nov. 24. Moreover, most households will not include children.

Rates of marriage also are changing according to class; middle-class people are more likely to marry and remarry than working-class people, who are more likely to remain single or cohabitate, Smith said. In surveys taken by GSS from 1972 to 1977, 80 percent of working-class and middle-class adults were married. During the 1994 to 1998 period, 78 percent of middle-class adults were married, as opposed to 62 percent of working-class adults.

“Marriage has declined as the central institution under which households are organized and children are raised,” Smith said. “People marry later and divorce and cohabitate more. A growing proportion of children has been born outside of marriage. Even within marriage the changes have been profound as more and more women have entered the labor force and gender roles have become more homogenous between husbands and wives.”

Those changes are having an impact on how Americans think about family life, although many traditional values continue to influence people’s attitudes.

The GSS, a major study of a broad cross-section of Americans conducted by the National Opinion Research Center with support from the National Science Foundation, has surveyed Americans about family life since 1972. For the most recent survey, researchers interviewed in person 2,832 randomly selected people 18 years old and older.

When the results of the American survey and those of 24 other advanced industrial countries are compared, demographers can gain a hint at the direction in which the American family is going. Americans are on the middle range of many of the attitude scales and seldom reach the top levels of acceptance for what people would consider to be a modern family arrangement. They will probably evolve in their attitudes towards acceptance of more non-traditional attitudes, Smith said.

One of this generation’s biggest changes is in the parental arrangements for children. In 1972, 73 percent of children lived with their original two parents, who were married. By 1998, 51.7 percent lived in such households. The number of children living with single parents went from 4.7 percent in 1972 to 18.2 percent in 1998, while the number of children living with two unmarried adults who were formerly married moved from 3.8 percent to 8.6 percent during this period. Cohabitating and remarried parents made up the rest of the group.

In looking at all households, Smith found that the most common arrangement in 1972 was married couples with children (45 percent), while in 1998, only 26 percent of households reflected this arrangement. The number of households with unmarried people and no children increased from 16 percent to in 1972 to 32 percent in 1998, becoming the most common living arrangement in the country.

A generation ago, a job outside the home was somewhat unusual for mothers, but that situation has now become the norm. In 1972, 33 percent of parents both held jobs, while in 1998, 67 percent were both employed. The percentage of households in which women worked while husbands stayed at home went from 2 to 4 percent during the period.

As a result of the role women now have in the workforce, parents’ expectations of their children have changed. In 1986, 23 percent of parents said obedience was the most import trait they expected from their children, a figure which dropped to 18.5 percent in 1998. In contrast, 11 percent felt hard work was the most important trait in 1986, while in 1998, 18 percent of American parents held that view.

“What this means is that parents are expecting their children to become more responsible," Smith said.

When asked their opinions on family life, Americans often held seemingly conflicting views. “Compared to people in other nations, Americans are more optimistic that children and the family need not suffer if the mother is employed,” Smith said. “But Americans also are less likely than those in other countries to see work as a boon for women and staying at home as a detriment.”

While Americans take a dim view on childbirth outside marriage, they also do not see having children as the purpose of marriage. “As members of most other Anglo cultures, Americans mainly see marriage as an institution for romantic love and companionship,” said Smith.

While there has been a huge increase in labor-force participation among women in the last 25 years, Americans are still less inclined than people in other countries to support government assistance to working parents. The survey found that 46 percent of Americans support child-care benefits for working parents, which places the United States at 19 among the 24 countries surveyed.

“The Emerging 21st-Century American Family,”

 

http://www-news.uchicago.edu/releases/99/991124.family.shtml
Last modified at 03:51 PM CST on Wednesday, June 14, 2000.

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