University of Arkansas System
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Changes in family life since the 1970s
Outline some of the major changes that have taken place in family life since the 1970s and discuss the concerns arising from these changes.
In the past many families were similar, as traditional nuclear families were the excepted norm of society. Since the 1970’s a number of major changes have taken place in family life. The traditional nuclear family is no longer seen as the norm as many other types of specialist families have developed to best suit the needs of the people within them. Family life is very complex and in recent years sociologists have sort to find new ways to understand it. However with these changes there have also been a number of concerns, which may suggest that not all changes have improved family life.
One way in which the family unit has changed since the 1970’s is the change in marriage rates. While marriage in the UK is still the majority among families, there has been a decline in the number of marriages, the age in which people are choosing to marry and the duration of marriages. In 1971 1% of all marriages in the UK ended after two years. In 1996 this figure increased to 9%. (Mark Kirby, 2000, p. 58). This suggests that marriage less important than it once was. There are a number for reasons as to why there is a change in marriage. It is argued that because women now have more freedom of choice than they did in the past, they may be choosing simply not to marry. Others suggest that women are now choosing to put off marriage till a later date so that they can focus on their careers and education.
Another reason for the change in marriage could be due to the undermining of the need to marry, now that it has become socially acceptable to cohabit or be single, many people choose not to marry. As well as this women are no longer dependant on men to be a ‘bread winner’ and provide for them. Lorraine Harding (1996) argues that the main decline in marriage occurred around the 1970’s due to greater levels of unemployment. Strain may have been put on the ‘breadwinner’ to support the family causing the breakdown of the marriage. ‘On this basis it could be argued that it is not the decline of the conventional family since 1970 that should need explaining, but rather its unusual popularity between 1945 and 1970’. (Mark Kirby, 2000, pp. 69-70)
Another major change that has taken place in family life since the 1970’s is the increase in the number of divorces. In 1970 80,000 couples got divorced in the UK, that figure has risen to 125,000 in 2003. (Scott, 2007, p. 466) It is argued that this increase is due to the 1969 Divorce Reform Act which made getting a divorce much easier. Women had more opportunity to work and therefor they were less dependent on men. State benefits gave women greater chance of leaving a marriage. (Scott, 2007, pp. 467-469). However with divorce there are a number of concerns that can arise in family life. It is believed that divorce is the main contributor to lone parent families who are considered to be at higher risk of poverty.
This is considered an unhealthy environment to bring up children as they may feel unsettled. Children may lose touch with the other parent and gain step parents. This in extension can effect socialisation, education and their family life in the future. Some sociologists also argue that children whose parents have had a divorce are more likely to get a divorce when they are older. Giddens found that two-fifths of all marriages in the UK now end in divorce. The number of marriages has fallen while the number of divorces has risen. (Giddens, 2009, pp. 350-351)
Cohabitation has increased sharply in recent years. It is seen as a prelude to marriage or an alternative and in some cases it replace marriage altogether. ‘In 1986 11 per cent of non-married men under the age of 60 were in cohabiting relationships, but by 2004 this figure had risen to 24 per cent. The comparable figures for women were 13 per cent in 1986 and 25 per cent in 2004’ (Social Trends, 2006) This goes to show that cohabitation is one alternative to the traditional nuclear family that people are choosing to take. In the UK today 73 per cent of women say they live with a man before they are married. However with cohabitation there have been a number of concerns suggested by sociologists. Some sociologists argue that because there is less commitment within a cohabiting relationship then they are less stable and more likely to break down. This could lead to poverty for the women and children involved. As well as this a cohabiting couple are more likely to seek state benefits and put a strain on the economy.
Antony Giddens argues the idea of a pure relationship. He believes that couples in Modern society choose now not to marry for love and intimacy but to cohabit and have a relationship that best suits them. He believes that in the past couples were bound by the contract of love and it would often be difficult to get and divorce and end a relationship. Giddens argues that divorce is increasing due to people having much more choice in their lives. If a relationship no longer continues to suit the interests of the people within it then it is easy to simply leave. Giddens says: ‘What holds the pure relationship together is the acceptance on the part of each partner, “until further notice”, that each gains a significant benefit from the relationship to make its continuance worthwhile.’ (Holborn, 2004)
The love within the relationship is governed by the amount of venerability the other is prepared to show. Giddens also saw that in the past families would have been headed by a single male breadwinner who provided for the whole family while the wife stayed at home. This has now changed and men and women have become more equal within contemporary society. This therefor suggests that men and women have also become equal within relationships. Pure relationships are quickly becoming more popular as our self-centred society develops. Within contemporary society we have more choice; this has now adapted the way we look at traditional ’till-death-us-do-part’ marriages and traditional nuclear families. (Elliott, 2008)
‘Living apart together’ is a term that is used for a family where one of the partners may live away for work or simply to maintain their independence. This follows on from the idea of a pure relationship as it is more causal for the people involved and it meets everyone needs. A problem that may arise from ‘LAT’ families is that it could be disruptive for children as they would not have a single home. It also shows a lack of commitment from the couple to move in together and get married. Although ‘LAT’ families are becoming increasingly common, they may still often be not seen as the best way to live as a family.
Lone parent’s families are becoming increasing common within the UK today. There have been significant increases in lone parent families since the 1970’s. This could be due to higher rates of divorce and cohabitation break down. Lone parents also have a reduced likelihood for marriage in the future with lone parent working class men having the lowest chance to marry. In 2004 73 per cent of lone mothers and 50 per cent lone fathers had dependent children. (Giddens, 2009, p. 355) This creates a concern with lone parents as it is believed that lone parents are more likely to be in poverty and dependant on state benefits.
It is argued that the child from a lone parent household is less likely to do well in education and is more likely to become a lone parent in the future. With less time to get an education it is also common for a lone parent to have low or no qualifications and poor pay. Lone parents can get caught in a poverty trap as they do not have the time to earn good money and improve their education. Some lone parents may wait until their children have grown up, and go into higher education at a later date.
With the increasing number of divorces and remarriages there has also be an increase in reconstituted families. Reconstituted families often bring two families together that have divorced parents. These types of family can generate some concerns as in many cases it is difficult for the children of the family to accept new relationships. In extension to this within reconstituted families there is a higher rate of child abuse. This could be due to the sometimes overwhelming environment of two families living together. They are also more likely to face economic hardship. Divorce rates in reconstituted families are higher than that of first marriages.
Same sex partnerships have received a lot of media attention in recent years. This is due to the very idea of sexuality being a topic of interest within society. It is only since December 2005 that gay and lesbian couples could get a civil partnership. If they wish to have children then they have to choose from adoption, artificial insemination, fostering or if they had a child from a past heterosexual relationship. This can be good for the child as they may choose to counteract patriarchy.
However on the other hand there are many aspects of a same sex partnership that could raise some concerns. For example the very nature of such a relationship challenges strongly held values and norms within society. This could therefor create conflict with other members of society. If there is a child involved this may not be the best environment to bring them up. In 2009 Elton John and his partner David Furnish were looking to adopt a child from the Ukraine. They faced problems when EveryChild, an international children’s charity, said
_”it was concerned by the singer’s announcement that he and partner David Furnish wanted to adopt a 14-month-old boy called Lev. The organization said that while it praised John’s help in raising awareness about children affected by HIV in Ukraine, it said the answer did not lie in international adoption, arguing that more children might be left in children’s homes as a result of another celebrity adoption”._ (Press Association, 2009)
As well as this many people believe that it is inappropriate to bring a child up with same sex parents. It is believed that this will have an effect on their sexuality without giving them a fair choice. With society becoming more multicultural some people from other religions may condemn the idea of same sex couples. This could leave them marginalised on the edge of society. In some extreme cases there have been ‘Honour Killings’ from some families in order to protect their image.
With an increase in same sex couples there has also been more of a demand for fertility and reproductive technology. These men and women are looking to artificial insemination to help them to have a child. On the other hand however heterosexual men and women, may also require such technology if they have a problem with conception. This has helped women whom have put off parenthood in order to focus on their careers and education. As women get older their fertility rate falls, 1 in 5 women will reach the end of their fertile life childless. This new technology can help families to have children whereas in the past they may not have been able. There has also been an increase in younger women becoming surrogate mothers for older women who can no longer have children.
Another technology that has had a large effect on family life is contraception. In the past, families often had many more children than in contemporary society. This was so their children could go to work and provide for the family, but also because they didn’t have the technology. Contraception has become increasing important over recent years with youth culture of today ‘Drugs, Sex, Rock and Roll’. In contrast to this idea, there has been an increase in teen parents over recent years, suggesting that more could be done to stop such families.
Other generations within the family are increasingly having a greater influence. In the past due to poor healthcare many children would never have met their grandparents as they would have died at a younger age. In modern society grandparents and great grandparents are now increasingly part of the family. This can create tensions between caring for the older members of the family and the younger ones. It can also have a structural issue as the older generations of the family may become a burden if there is a break down in the relationship or a divorce.
In conclusion there are a number of changes that have taken place in the family since the 1970’s. Not all of these changes have had positive effects. There have also been a number of negatives. With such a large change within society concerns will arise, it is how these concerns are dealt with that will determine the future of the family unit. There are some sociologists that believe that the family is still just as strong as it has always been even with the loss of traditional families.
_”Family living also offers an opportunity for intimacy, a word with Latin roots meaning ‘sharing fears’. That is, as a result of sharing a wide range of activities over a long period of time, members of families forge emotional bonds. Of course, the fact that parents act as authority figures often inhabits their communication with young children. But as young people reach adulthood, kinship ties typically ‘open up’ as family members recognise that they share concern for one another’s welfare”_ (Plummer, 2002, p. 441)
This suggests that it does not matter what shape or size a family is, but if it teaches the people within it to become good adults and care for others then it will have fulfilled its purpose. With the ever changing and diverse nature of the society in which we live families have simply become more specialised, and the people within them are no longer bound by what is socially acceptable.