Crisis and comeback

Buffeted by winds of social change, economic uncertainty, and moral ambiguity , America's families are beginning to fight back. The onset of the 1980s finds millions of Americans debating, questioning -- and earnestly searching for ways to shore up family life and to adjust to the enormous changes affecting the institution of the family. It is almost as if a national grass-roots movement were emerging to disprove, or at least counterbalance, the cry of the mass media that the family is "breaking down" and "in crisis."

"I have not seen so much interest in family and children in 10 or 15 years of working in this field," comments John Calhoun, commissioner of the US Administration for Children, Youth and Families. "We are on the verge now of a revolution of concern."

No one seriously believes that the institution of family and marriage is vanishing. On the contrary, it remains universally recognized as the bedrock unit of society, in which children are raised, adults share their affections and lives, and continuity is provided between generations. The vast majority of Americans, according to a recent Gallup poll, regard the family as "the most important" or "one of the most important" parts of their life and receive a high level of satisfaction from it. An overwhelming majority (91 percent) favor more emphasis on "traditional family ties" in the years ahead.

Yet an underlying malaise is widely felt. The same Gallup poll showed that 45 percent of Americans think family life has grown worse since the mid-1960s under the assaults of a rising cost of living, alcohol and drugs, and the decline of religious and moral standards. A high 37 percent think the situation will continue to deterioriate.

Because of the sexual revolution -- a revolution abetted by birth-control technology and mass communication -- and the surge of women into the labor force , family and marriage are indeed undergoing transformation.

* The divorce rate in the United States is the highest in the world. Almost 40 percent of all marriages today end in divorce. The remarriage rate is high -- 4 out of 5 divorced persons remarry -- but the divorce rate for remarriages is even higher than for first marriages.

* The number of couples living together out of wedlock has been rising dramatically. Fewer than 3 percent of all couples are unmarried (in Sweden the rate is 16 percent), but the numbers are increasing by 15 to 20 percent a year, according to the US Census Bureau. Today about 1.3 million unmarried Americans share living quarters with a member of the opposite sex.

* The incidence of births outside of wedlock, especially among teen-agers, continues to rise. About 16 percent of all births today are to unwed mothers (the figure is 9 percent for whites and 53 percent for blacks).

* Growing numbers of children live with single parents. About 45 percent of the children born in 1978 may spend at least part of their childhood with only one parent, according to the Census Bureau. One of every 6 children now lives in a family in which the father is absent (because of death, divorce, separation , or out-of-wedlock birth).

* A high incidence of violence within the family has come to light in recent years. It is rstimated that 1 million children are neglected or abused each year and that as many as 2 million women are "battered wives."

* Teen-age alcoholism and drug abuse are on the rise. Crimes by youths under 18 are rising at a faster rate than the juvenile population. The suicide rate among young people also is high.

Perhaps the most unsettling fact for many Americans is today's diversity of family structure. What for many decades was thought of as the "traditional family" has long passed from dominance of the scene; only 13 percent of all families now fit the pattern of a working father, a stay-at-home mother, and one or more children. If one includes mothers who work, the conventional nuclear family (mother, father, and children) is still predominant, and between 75 and 78 percent of all children live with two parents, but the trend is toward more families with single parents, families without children, and men and women living alone.

If present trends continue, in fact, it is possible that by 1990 only slightly more than a quarter of all households in the US will consist of married couples with children. This is the conclusion of a report published in May by the Joint Center for Urban studies of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The authors of the report, Mary Jo Bane and George Masnick, see dramatic changes in the decade ahead, with smaller households, more two-worker households, and the century's highest level of people younger than 30 who have never been married.

These forecasts depend on whether women will increasingly hold full-time jobs and form an "attachment" to work, deferring marriage and limiting family size. But, the report concludes, "our analysis suggests that population, households, and family structure have been changing in truly revolutionary proportions and are more than likely to continue to do so."

Most professional observers agree there is ample cause for concern about the trends. But whether they add up to a frightening "crisis" or to a temporary disarray that comes with sweeping change depends on whom one talks with. Most of some 30 experts with whom this correspondent spoke -- social scientists, historians, child-care specialists, government officials -- tended not to be alarmist, viewing the challenge as one largely of adjustment.

"We see change and diversity," comments Mary Jo Bane, author of the often-quoted book "Here to Stay." "We must respond and plan for these changes, but they are not catastrophic."

"There's a lot of stress and discomfort in families because of the social and economic forces impacting on them, but not all of them are deteriorating," says A. Sidney Johnson III, director of the Family Impact Seminar at George Washington University. "We have to work on the problems, but there's enormous resilience and strength in families, too."

Some analysts feel the news media, out of a proclivity for sensationalism or out of ignorance, have tended to exaggerate the negatives in the trends. It is questioned, for instance, whether the incidence of teen-age pregnancies, cohabitation, homosexuality, and child abuse is appreciably greater today, or simply better recorded. In the past, sexual immorality was kept hidden behind a facade of marital respectability; today it is in the open because more tolerated. Many marriages of the past were "bitterenders," but nonetheless were miserable. Today, at least, there may be less moral hypocrisy.

Some phenomena, moreover, are not so dramatically different as the statistics imply. Thus, single parents are not unique to these times. Before the 1920s, historians point out, many more children lost a parent through death. Moreover, while the proportion of children living with two parents has dropped in recent decades, the proportion living with at least one natural parent has risen -- because of a lower death rate and the fact that more women have been establishing their own households after divorce or separation.

Furthermore, in the view of analysts, some hopeful signs are beginning to emerge -- less promiscuity on campuses, greater thought given to marriage and parenthood on the part of young people, and more determination to avoid the mistakes of divorced parents. Marriages in the future may therefore prove to be more mature and considered. It is also counted significant that such nontraditional family groupings as communes often turn out to be extremely traditional in their practices.

In addition, some of the trends themselves show signs of turning around. The rate of increase in divorces and in teen-age pregnancies is slowing down, for example. And other changes are expected as demographic patterns alter: the leveling off of the birthrate, the tapering off of school and college enrollment in the next decade, and the eventual stabilizing of the proportion of women in the work force.

Reuben Hill, one of the nation's leading family sociologists, likewise believes the mass media have failed to convey the inherent strengths and continuity of the family. There were more changes in the family structure between 1890 and 1925 than in the last 50 years, he told a conference in Oregon last spring. Much of the innovation in family life -- such as communal living, homosexuality, and wife-swapping -- came out of the shift of social values in the 1960s and were more "experiments" than long-range trends.

"There is a turning back to fundamentalism in religion, to the right politically and economically, a turning to familialism in the family," the University of Minnesota scholar is quoted as saying. "Families have been on a cyclic pattern and have almost completed the cycle back to the 1950s."

Robert Weiss, a sociologist at the University of Massachusetts, similarly urges a more balanced perspective. "Families are always in transition and every change brings new weaknesses and new strengths," he says. "society no longer has the repressiveness of the Victorian age that produced disabilities and neuroses, but, on the other hand, today there is more aimlesssness and a tendency to be insufficiently accessible to children because of one's own commitments. The problems are simply different."

Other observers are less sanguine, however. Those with strong religious convictions, especially, are worried about the implications for modern society of what they see as a severe breakdown of Judeo-Christian morality, affecting not only the family but all social institutions. If agreed-upon moral standards are the glue of civilization, they argue, then the glue is becoming dangerously diluted. "We're in a mess when 1 of 2 marriages fails," remarks the Rev. Elizabeth Achtemeier, visiting professor at the Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Va.

Harold Voth, senior psychiatrist at the Menninger Foundation in Kansas, is vehemently critical of contemporary trends. "When even the incest taboo is being questioned and homosexuality is being redefined as a normal life style, the nation needs a basic awakening," he says. "The family will endure, but the question is whether we can produce the healthy, strong men and women which can bring values to our society. If the family is torn apart, we will not remain a viable nation that the world looks to for safety."

Dr. Voth and others see links between the weakening of family stability and such social phenomena as the national decline in growth of labor productivity, the reluctance of many young people to serve in the armed forces, and the high percentage of youth having trouble in school. "When the family is devitalized, you seek out values that don't expect much of you or create new ones," Dr. Voth says, "so we don't see many children striving for excellence."

To blame weaknesses of the family for all of society's ills is, most observers agree, unfair. The fact is that the family no less than other institutions has been rocked by the profound social turbulence of recent decades. With the 20th-century scientific and technological revolution has come , together with its manifold benefits, an erosion of traditional moral, social, and cultural norms affecting attitudes about everything from politics and religion to family, sex, and education. The fragmentation and loss of authority evident in many families are similarly visible in political parties, government, schools, and the churches. All institutions seem to be marching in lockstep, struggling to cope with swift and intense change -- change that has led to stress on individual freedom over collectivity, the "self" over society, material indulgence over moral restraint, and tolerance over strict standards.

However, every generation, going back to early centuries, has bemoaned the demise of the family, and scholars therefore believe that a better understanding of the history of the American family would help keep the problems in perspective. As they point out, the so-called "traditional family" of modern times is a fairly recent phenomenon, Until the Industrial Revolution the family was a productive unit, usually a farming enterprise, in which all members lived and worked together.

But beginning in the 19th century, industrialization and urbanization began transforming the family -- to the point where women of the white middle class stayed home to raise their children and husbands regarded the family as a "haven" from a fiercely competitive world. The family became, in effect, a unit of consumption, with the children no longer economic "assets" but "luxuries." Parents in this new-style family began lavishing attention on their children. Marriage, moreover, came to be based more on romantic love and looked to more for companionship than its economic utility.

"When men and women worked together, they had something besides emotional contact to unify their relationships," says Paul Glick, senior demographer of the US Census Bureau. "Now women work in one place and men in another and there's less overlap. It's not surprising divorce has increased."

Some interesting research in the area has been done by Tamara Hareven, a hisotry professor at Clark University and a research associate at Harvard's Center for Population Studies. Dr. Hareven challenges what she calls the "myths" about the American family: that there were once "extended families" and that there was some golden age of family harmony. "Even though pre-industrial families contained large numbers of children, women invested relatively less time in motherhood than their successors in the 19th century and in our time," she told a government-sponsored family research forum in Washington, D.C., in April.

High mortality in pre-industrial society, moreover, as well as high geographic mobility, precluded the "three-generational household" as the dominant family structure. Most parents, she said, could not have expected to live with their grandchildren.

In Dr. Hareven's view, today's middle-class family (which the lower and working classes have sought to emulate) suffers most from its suburban isolation from community life, its emphasis on privacy, and -- because of affluence -- its failure to foster mutual responsibilities of family members. What was once a more collective snese of family, in other words, has given way to fragmentation and a stress on individualism. "This sense of isolation needs to be broken and a sense of mutuality recovered," Dr. Hareven commented in an interview.

Whatever assessment experts place on the family today, the significant fact is that a sizable segment of the American public believes that the family, while basically healthy, is in trouble. Because of the deepening concern, the subject of family has become something of a national obsession. Bookstores bulge with books on family and child care. Popular magazines run lengthy pieces on how the family needs to be saved. The Reader's Digest in September will launch a new publication called Families. The film "Kramer vs. Kramer" is but one of an array of pictures seeking to depict realistically some of today's problems in the home.

Across the country parents are becoming more involved in activities aimed at strengthening family life. Many are attending "marriage enrichment" seminars or taking courses in "parenting." Others are forming groups to combat drug abuse and violence and immorality on television. Private volunteer organizations report mounting participation in efforts to help single parents, battered wives, divorced fathers, stepparents, pregnant teen-agers, the elderly. Schools report more interest and cooperation from parents in bolstering their children's education. The White House, responding to a felt need for more attention on the issue, recently sponsored three conferences on families, each held in a different geographic region and preceded by state hearings and conferences that drew thousands of participants.

What will emerge from all this activity remains to be seen, but many observers feel that the heightened attention and even the very anxiety bespeak the nation's yearning to "turn the corner" and do something about its family problems. The question is what, and the widening debate today is largely over solutions. The Gallup poll cited above showed that most families regard economic pressures as their biggest problem. Many family specialists and social scientists therefore stress the need for government policies that promote jobs and a strong economy and corporate policies that enable working women -- and working men -- to care for their children. Family "impact statements" now are urged on government and business, just as environmental impact statements were pressed a decade ago.

Less conspicuous in the public debate, however, is a discussion of the breakdown of moral standards which contributes to family instability. Except for the voices of fundamentalist religious groups and segments of the public politically opposing such policies as abortion and sex education, there is a reticence -- on the part of churches, the academic community, the corporate world -- to speak out explicitly on the issue.

Yet, according to Gallup, Americans regard the erosion of moral and spiritual values as among the factors deemed most harmful to family life. Some social thinkers in fact view the deterioriation of norms as lying at the core not only of family but of other institutional diificulties. In their view, solution of the nation's economic and social problems will require no less than a rebuilding of moral and spiritual ideals.

"We are fostering the notion of an individualistic society in which 'autonomy' has become a kind of euphemism for values," says Paul Ramsey, professor of religion at Princeton University. "This is bound to erode marital and family bonds, any bonds. It's a corrosive notion and not the possible foundation of any society, especially a civilized one."

Next: Working parents -- who cares for the kids?

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.