Over the past decade, changes in family structure have attracted professional attention. These changes are a complex result of multiple social, economic, and cultural influences. The goal of this paper is to summarize and customize the data provided in Etuk’s (2008) writing regarding the changes in family structure in the past century. Additional information from other sources is also used. This paper highlights the most important shifts in family development and structure in the Western world. Recommendations for future research are provided.
Keywords: family, changes, social, economic, culture, structure.
How Family Structure Has Changed
Changes in family structure have become one of the primary topics of social research. Much has been written and said about the way families were changing in the past decade. These changes are a result of multiple social, economic, and cultural influences. Today’s family is not what it is used to be several decades ago. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, a family is a formation of two or more people who live together and are related by marriage, birth, or adoption (Etuk, 2008). However, the American family is more than a union of two or more people who are related to each other either by birth or through adoption. It is also a union of two or more people who develop emotional commitments and provide one another with spiritual security and emotional support.
In the past century, family structure underwent a profound shift. According to Etuk (2008), it was not before the middle of the 18th century that the notions of free choice and spiritual companionship became integral to the notion of family and its basic structure. Before that time, marriage had been a pragmatic arrangement organized by parents and other family members, and most individuals had no freedom in choosing their spouses (Etuk, 2008). In the earlier times, men and women married to improve their economic wellbeing. In the Middle Ages, marriage was one of the primary instruments of political decision making (Etuk, 2008). At the end of the 18th – at the beginning of the 19th centuries, marriage gradually transformed into a union based on companionship, intimacy, and love. Since that time, the family has become one of the central prerequisites for stability and economic/cultural growth in the developed world.
At the beginning of the 19th century, under the influence of the broad political and economic shifts, the structure of the family changed to include a male breadwinner and a female homemaker (Etuk, 2008). However, the Great Depression made it difficult for many families to achieve the ideal structure (Etuk, 2008). Men could not afford supporting their families, and women had to look for employment. Only after the Second World War, in the atmosphere of economic prosperity and dramatic social advancement, men finally became family breadwinners (Etuk, 2008). Economic growth and the growing availability of social resources enabled individuals to marry early, stay married for years, and give birth to many children (Etuk, 2008). Unfortunately, the ideal family situation did not last long.
The 1970s became the turning point in the century-long evolution of family structure. At the end of the 1960s, as a result of the worsening economic conditions, the rates of divorce rose together with the average age of first marriage (Etuk, 2008). The 1970s became the decade of the steepest declines in age-specific marriage rates, while the rates of cohabitation dramatically increased (Cancian & Reed, 2009). Changes in the family structure during the 1970s were mainly due to the substantial socioeconomic shifts as well as the growing availability of female employment and birth control. Real wages for women continued to increase; real wages for men rapidly decreased (Etuk, 2008). Even in the rural America, changes in the rates of marriage and divorce reflected the broad tendencies at the federal level.
Changes in family structure during the past century showed that “the family has constantly been under pressure to evolve and shift with changes in the economy, our values, and even politics” (Etuk, 2008). Again, it is due to the changes in the economy and social life that the family has become a union based primarily on love and companionship than on economic and social considerations. As of today, there is no ideal family structure or form. However, today’s socioeconomic and cultural conditions have changed men’s and women’s role in the family, making them seek a new balance between their family and workplace functions (Jayson, 2009). The growing diversity of the population drives the emergence of new family forms. Future researchers must focus on the analysis of the emerging diversity patterns and their implications for family formation in the developed world.
Thus, family structure changes in response to the broader socioeconomic and cultural shifts. The past century witnessed dramatic transformations in family relationships and structure. From being purely pragmatic, the family has become a union based on love and companionship. Through the prism of the century-long changes, it is clear that family structure evolves together with the changes in economy, social life, and culture. For this reason, future researchers should focus on the analysis of the emerging diversity patterns and their implications for family formation.