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The family, 1990

The changes in the American family are of "truly revolutionary proportions." Thus do the latest scholars weighing in on the subject confirm what many Americans feel in their bones.

A major new study, "The Nation's Families: 1960-1990," makes plain that the concerns represented by last fall's National Assembly on the Future of the Family and this year's White House conferences on the family come none too soon.

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For one thing, the study bolsters efforts to shape national policies and programs in keeping with the changing population as indicated, for instance, in the 1980 and 1981 federal budget documents.

For another, the study, in effect, most fundamentally challenges American individuals not to lose such basic family values as love, trust, fidelity, joy. These must be maintained though households and living arrangements display the "increasing diversity" that is projected.

On these two matters -- the institutional and the individual responses -- some preliminary points can be suggested before the many strands of a large and intricate situation are brought together in a Monitor series on the family in July.

But in first, consider some of the dramatic projected changes that must be responded to, as described in the researches just made public by the Joint Center for Urban Studies of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While recognizing the riskiness of prediction, "The Nation's Families" finds that by 1990:

* The percentage of husband-wife households with one worker bringing home the bacon will have fallen from 43 percent in 1960 to 14 percent.

* The so-called conventional family of mother, father, and young children will constitute just over a quarter of households.

* Increases in women working full time throughout the year may result in wives contributing up to 40 percent of family income, contrasted with about a quarter now, mainly in low-wage, part-time jobs. (Part of the reason for wives' lower contribution is that, for decades, full-time women workers have regularly earned only about 60 percent of what men earn.)

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* Single parent and other nontraditional households, including "solo living" by a man or woman alone, will increase. The number of "never married" young people under 30 will reach the highest level in this century.

As federal budget documents have also recognized, the post-World War II baby boom and its current and future effects create a special situation. The budget papers note that the entry of the baby boom into the labor market helped to explain lowered growth of productivity in recent years. The younger inexperienced workers tended to be less productive, and business investment did not match the accelerated growth of the labor force. As these workers mature, they will become peak earners and savers, while the smaller succeeding generations will add less growth to the labor force. Productivity, by this reasoning, ought to rise.

Meanwhile, the proportion of older persons will increase, requiring greater social security outlays financed by a proportionally smaller labor force. However, even here it can be noted that working persons in the middle may find their situation leavened by the likelihood of having fewer young dependents -- a counterbalance to the increased number of older dependents. The Harvard-MIT figures suggest, indeed, that the baby boom was an interruption in a pattern of declining US birthrate that had begun earlier and is continuing now.

How to respond to all that is happening? Our two basic approaches are these:

* Institutional. More nonparental child care will be needed for children whose parents are either single or both at work. And more care for the elderly in a generation with fewer children and thus greater need for support beyond the family.

A basic matter will be the amount of public funds to be allocated to replace traditional family roles of caring. The question is seen to be complicated by the increase in young singles with no particular interest in supporting the necessary kinds of care.On the other hand, such need could draw on the American people's great resources of voluntary service, s it already does where, for example, volunteer drivers take the elderly without family to places they need to go.

Recognizing the mixed potential impact of change, the country's governmental, business, educational, religious, and other institutions ought to maintain or adopt policies serving to enhance and foster family relationships. Marriage should not bring a tax penalty, as it does now. Families living together should not be penalized in obtaining necessary government aid. Neither spouse should be discriminated against under social security. There may be promise in the idea of "family impact statements" as a prerequisite for establishing government programs.

* Individual. One clue appears above in the example of volunteers coming forward to offer services from one generation to another without blood kinship. The attitudes of sharing, justice, "tender, loving care" that are necessary for preserving ties within families -- these must be extended by individuals beyond the household, whatever new shapes it may take, to that larger "family of man" to which we all are kin.

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