The Rise of New Families

By Matt Allen

The changing dynamic of families is obvious even if you’re just flipping through the channels.

Compare the shows of the 1950s with the June and Ward Cleavers of the world to current popular shows like Modern Family, and it’s easy to see the shifts in attitudes.

This movement is described in detail in “The Decline of Marriage and Rise of New Families,” a Pew Research Center nationwide survey done in association with TIME and complemented by an analysis of demographic and economic data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Research shows that more people think marriage is becoming obsolete.

“We did find in spite of these trends that family really does remain essential to people’s existence, though,” said Kim Parker, a senior researcher with the Pew Social & Demographic Trends Project. “In spite of the different look and shape of family, the importance of family has not diminished.”

Parker shared her thoughts about her findings, the resiliency of family, and the greater acceptance of “non-traditional” families Your research shows nearly 40% of those surveyed find marriage is becoming obsolete, up from 28% about 30 years ago. What do you attribute that change in thinking to?

Kim Parker: Part of it is there is awareness that there are different arrangements now and the traditional 1950s-style family that was more dominant 50 years ago is not necessarily the norm anymore.

So there is awareness amongst the public that there are alternatives to marriage, people are marrying later in life, and there is a rise in divorce that we have seen over the last 50 years. I think that has played into the public perception as well.


DD: With more people viewing marriage as becoming obsolete, do they see this as a positive or negative trend?

KP: We didn’t ask specifically what people thought of that trend. We did have a series of more specific changes in society and asked if they were good or bad, though. Things like more single women having children without a male partner, more gay and lesbian couples raising children or more people living together without being married.

In most cases, pluralities of the public said those changes didn’t make much difference. The thing that people reacted most negatively to was more single women having children without a male partner to help raise them. But on some things the public was pretty much agnostic.


DD: In the past five decades, the number of people married has dropped, the number of people never married has risen and the number of people separated or divorced has almost tripled. So is this as obvious of an indication as there is to the shrinking institution of marriage or is there more to these numbers?

KP: One thing to keep in mind when we look at the share of people who are currently married, part of the change over time is people are getting married later in life. Most people do eventually marry but at any given point since the median age of a first marriage has moved up significantly, you are going to have fewer people who are married.

We also found that most unmarried people do want to get married. I’ve had a lot of people ask me what do you think this trend means? Is marriage just going to eventually go away?

We can’t really predict the future, but I think there are signs in this survey and elsewhere that the institution is still very strong. We had several questions about what’s best for children and people still really believe that children need two parents to raise them.

So if people believe that then they are going to think that there needs to be some kind of connection between the two parents to raise a child successfully.


DD: How do different groups view these changing dynamics of marriage and family?

KP: There are big generational differences. Young people are much more open and less critical to the changes and older people have a harder time because they came out of the mold of the 1950s era family.

We also found in the basic trends of the declining number of people getting married that people in the lower socioeconomic strata and racial minorities are much less likely to marry than those with a higher socioeconomic status and whites. And that gap has widened a lot over time.


DD: Was there anything that really surprised you about these findings?

KP: We did find in spite of these trends that family really does remain essential to people’s existence. People say family is the most important thing in their life and family brings them a lot of satisfaction. They also feel that the institution of marriage in the family has a bright future.

We asked about a series of issues from family to education to the economic system to morals and values and we found that people are much more optimistic about family than they are many other elements of society. So that was all positive.

Our takeaway from it is that family is changing and the public is rolling with that. In spite of the different look and shape of family, the importance of family has not diminished.


DD: Most of our readers would agree that divorce has a negative stigma attached to it. So what impacts do you think this report will have on society’s perception of those who are divorced? Might these findings make divorce seem more accepting?

KP: I think it shows with these different arrangements that people have are becoming more common. The numbers of people with stepfamilies, stepchildren, stepparents are really high and we’re finding the experiences in terms of their family life is not that different.

The other thing is that the divorce rate has leveled off in the last 20 years. I think the fact that people are getting married later and a lot more couples are living together before marriage is contributing to that leveling off so you don’t have as many people getting into bad marriages or marrying too young.

We found divorce is still a very profound experience for people and has a huge impact on the family life, but we didn’t find anything in the survey that it was really damaging or something that can’t be overcome.

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