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How Have Families Changed over Time, and Why?

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  1. I. How have family structures, practices, values, and responsibilities changed since the 1950s?

The structures, or forms, of the family vary as much as the definition itself. There is no single "true" family form. In Western Europe the nuclear family (a single set of biological parents residing together with their children) was prevalent in the Middle Ages, but at that same time in Eastern Europe multiple generations of the same family lived together in the same household (Coltrane and Collins, 2001). Indeed, the United States has also seen many types of family forms throughout its short history. Stephanie Coontz's (2005) research on the history of marriage reveals that the family forms we see today in the U.S. are actually the result of an evolution of the family that began with an important shift in the culture of marriage in the mid-18th Century.

Coontz (2005) found that only in the mid- to late-18th Century in Western Europe and North America "did the notion of free choice and marriage for love triumph as a cultural ideal...[opening] the way for it to become an optional and fragile [institution]" thus influencing the structure of the family at that time and into the future (p. 7). Earlier in history, during the Stone and Middle Ages, marriage was not based on love and men and women had very little choice about whom they married. In the Stone Age men and women married in order to improve the economic situation of their respective clans, then in the Middle Ages and into the 18th Century marriage served the economic and political needs of a particular extended family group (Coontz, 2005).

As marriage evolved in the mid- to late-18th Century into a union based on love, other economic, cultural, and political shifts in the U.S. and in other nations were happening that would further influence the structure of the family. In the 19th Century an ideal of the husband as breadwinner and the wife as homemaker became popular, but the majority of families could not achieve this ideal, as few jobs paid wages high enough to support a single-earner family. This changed as World War II ended and the U.S. experienced a time of dramatic economic growth. The economic prosperity of the time combined with the popular cultural ideal gave rise to family trends in the 1950s and early 1960s that had never been seen before. "Ozzie and Harriet" families that married young, remained married, and had many children were the major family form at this time (McLanahan and Casper, 2001). The realization of the Ozzie and Harriet ideal did not last long, however. In the late 1960s and 1970s divorce rates rose, births to unmarried women increased, and the average age of first marriage also rose. The reasons for these changes in the '60s and '70s were many: real wages for women rose while those for men fell, the economy weakened, wives joined the workforce due to the downturn in the economy, and women gained access to legal rights, education, birth control, and paid work (McLanahan and Casper, 2001; Coltrane and Collins, 2001). This historical examination of the evolution of the family and marriage shows that the family has constantly been under pressure to evolve and shift with changes in the economy, our values, and even politics. The evolution of marriage into an institution of love along with changes in the economy, our culture, and the political scene since the 1950s has meant that American men and women have been able to realize their ideals of the male breadwinner and marriage for the sake of love and personal freedom as time changes.

These influences and trends in marriage, divorce, and non-marital fertility did not escape rural America. Comparing urban and rural parts of the country between 1950 and 1970 reveals, however, that rural divorce rates were lower, fewer women age 20-24 were unmarried, and the number of children per 1,000 ever married women age 35-44 was slightly higher in rural America (Brown, 1981). The changes in marriage, divorce, and fertility we observe during the 20th Century in all parts of the U.S. demonstrate that the structure of families are changing and becoming more diverse. While there are now many forms available to people, the family itself is not disappearing.

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