The end of marriage [Commentary]

Sitcom nuclear families are not coming back

September 24, 2014|Susan Reimer

Ward and June. Ozzie and Harriet. Jim and Margaret Anderson.

If you recognize those couples — and if you grew up wishing they were your parents — you likely hearken to a time when the American family was made up of a breadwinning father and a homemaking mother and a couple of kids.

We like to think of the 1950s and the early 1960s as the golden age of family life, but it was also a repressive time for women. Only a handful had college degrees, only about 30 percent ventured outside the home to work, and women had little control over the timing and number of the children they bore.

The invention of the Pill and the birth of feminism changed almost everything about family life, of course. Today, 40 percent of women have a college degree and 71 percent are employed.

There have been other profound changes. In 1960, 93 percent of women were married by their early 30s. Today, only 66 percent are. In 1960, 65 percent of children lived in Ozzie and Harriet, husband-and-wife households. Today, only 22 percent do.

The American household is nearly unrecognizable from our sitcom past, and a pair of scholars have taken new statistical family portraits. The picture isn't pretty.

Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, in a report for the Council on Contemporary Families, concludes that "different is the new normal."

In "The Family: Diversity, Inequality, and Social Change," he writes that family structure hasn't simply morphed from one based on marriage to one where 40 percent of children are born outside of marriage. Instead, it has it has "fanned out," like the tail of a peacock, into a number of different forms.

Children now live in all sorts of households, from married male breadwinner families (22 percent) to dual income married parents (34 percent) to single mothers (23 percent).

"Today," he writes, "there is no single family arrangement that encompasses a majority of children."

Mr. Cohen reserves judgment on these new family structures. And he does not see them as the cause of poverty.

"Chaotic family structure among the poor and working classes is a consequence of poverty, not its cause," he said in an interview.

But Isabel Sawhill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is looking at the same changes and sounding the alarm.

In her new book, "Generation Unbound: Drifting into Sex and Parenthood Without Marriage," she warned that marriage has passed out of fashion and there is no getting it back.

"The genie is out of the bottle," she wrote in a companion piece in the New York Times.

This isn't just "different," it is quantifiably bad for the kids, because 60 percent of the children born outside of marriage are unplanned or unwanted, and that has social, behavioral and economic burdens that will follow them into adulthood, she said.

These babies happen because young people aren't very good at contraception, she writes. They either use it inconsistently, such as forgetting to take the Pill, or they choose a form that has a high failure rate, such as condoms.

Ms. Sawhill argues for a "new ethic of responsible parenthood," and by that she means, don't have a baby until you and your partner are prepared to be parents. It isn't the structure of the family that is going to matter now, it is the quality of the parenting, she says.

Ms. Sawhill argues that the IUD or another form of long-acting, reversible contraception is the surest way to prevent yourself from accidentally becoming a parent. With these forms of birth control, you don't have to do anything to keep from getting pregnant. In fact, if you decide to have a child you actually have to make an appointment with a doctor to have the contraceptive device removed.

Here, too, Mr. Cohen and Ms. Sawhill diverge.

"I think the emphasis on encouraging more deliberate family planning and providing access to long-term forms of birth control is really important," said Mr. Cohen. "But we've been telling poor people to be more responsible and imploring them stop having babies outside of marriage since the 1970s, and there is no evidence that it has worked."

You don't erase poverty by giving the poor a stern talking-to, he said. Instead, they need a sense of certainty about the core issues of job security, wages, health care, child care and retirement.

"If you are secure about these things, you can make a much more considered decision about your future and whether to have children," he said.

The social norms around marriage, which tied couples together in support of their children, have changed and they might never change back, no matter how clearly we illustrate the benefits for mothers and children.

June and Ward Cleaver are gone for good.

Susan Reimer's column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at sreimer@baltsun.com and @SusanReimer on Twitter.com.


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