The American society has undergone numerous changes from its founding and the family life is no exception. Just like all the other aspects of the society, the family life of the normal American family has evolved to measure up to the standards of modernity. This has led to substantial changes not only in the family structure and components but also in the definition of the various family roles in marriage. From the traditional family where the roles were clearly defined and order was the norm, the roles in the modern family seem to overlap with there being no specific roles for set aside for members of any gender. This paper focuses on the changes that have occurred in the American family life between the 1950s and the 1990s.
American family life in the 1950s was very different from what was seen in the 1990s. To start with, divorce was not a common sight and families consisted of two parents, a mother and a father. There was societal pressure for one to get married and stay married no matter what problems the marriage was having and divorce came about with stigma. It was especially economically appealing for a woman to stay married and women who were married had a better economic status (Candace, 1).
As opposed to the modern times when a divorced woman can easily find a decent job, jobs for women in the 1950s were limited to secretary, nurse, librarian and teacher which meant a decline in economic status upon divorce. Men also never favored divorce due to societal demands. The society expected a good man to have a family of wife and kids and this expectation was in every sector of the society from workplace and the man’s employer to family, friends and neighbors. In 1950 for example, there were only 385,000 divorces (Candace, 1).
The 1990s was a different era altogether in terms of marriage. While marriage still retained its position as a central institution in the American society, it seemed to be less dominant than it was in the 1950s. While it was rare to find unmarried people in the 1950s, the number of people who had never married had increased to about 23% by 1998. The number of married people had also dropped to 56%. This was attributed to the rise in divorce rate as well as people delaying marriage (Tom, 1).
People got married young in the 1950s with the average age of men during their first marriages being 23 and that of women 20. In the 1990s however, the average age of men during their first marriage was 27 and that of women 25. Divorce rate had doubled from slightly below 17% in the late 1950s to approximately 33-34% in the 1990s. In the 1990s, more people seemed to agree that it is alright for a marriage that is not working to end in divorce. The stigma seemed to have lessened and in 1994, 82% of people agreed with childless couples who do not get along getting a divorce while 67% agreed that parents who do not get along should also divorce (Tom, 1).
Families in the 1950s had any children and the period was referred to as the period of the baby boom. There were approximately 3.65 children per woman especially in the 1957 which was the peak of the baby boom. The rate of childbearing however declined to 2.0 – 2.1 children per woman in the early 1990s and further to 1.8 children per woman in the mid 1990s, a number that is insufficient to ensure the growth of any population. The number of families with children below the age of 18 years also increased to 62% in the 1990s and the typical American family in the 1990s had no minor children. Preference for larger families also dropped considerably to match the decline in childbearing from 56% of the people supporting the idea of having three children or more to only 39% of the people supporting a family of three or more children in the 1990s (Tom, 1).
The Americans idea of what a family should be also underwent changes between the 1950 and 1990s. The typical family in the 1950s had both parents and it was rare to find a single parent family or parents who were not married. The 1990s saw the embrace of the modern family arrangement which also came about with a change in parental arrangements for the children. The number of children born outside wedlock rose from 5% in the late 1950s to 32% in the 1990s. The number of children living with both parents had declined to 51.7% and the number of children living with single parents rose to 18.2% from a number below 4.7% (University of Chicago News Office, 1).
The number of children living with parents who were previously married rose to 9% from below 4%. Similarly, there was a rise in the number of children being raised up by one step-parent after a divorce and a new feature of children being raised up by homosexual parents. People were also more social in the 1950s and it was rare to see someone living alone. There were approximately 9.3% homes with single occupant but the rate had risen to over 25% in the 1990s.
Gender roles changed significantly from the 1950s to the 1990s. In the 1950s, the normal family had the father as the breadwinner of the family while the mother played the role of the homemaker and stayed at home taking care of the children and cooking and cleaning for the family. This subjective view of things was widely accepted by the society and even the media. The 1990s however saw a change in this model. The families who had the father as the breadwinner and the mother as a housewife were still existent but they were the minority (Jill, 1).
Mothers and wives also started sharing in the economic responsibility of the family and more women found jobs outside the traditionally defined female careers of nursing and teaching. On the other hand, fathers got more involved in the upbringing of their children assuming the role of a parent and not just a mere breadwinner. More men could be seen changing diapers in men’s public restrooms, attending parent – teacher meetings and pushing shopping carts in grocery stores (Jill, 1).
The change in gender roles also led to a change in the labor force participations. In the 1950s, women were raised up expecting their husbands to provide for them and as a result, few women entered the workforce. Their number in the workforce did not change much even in the 1990s. The generation after this however entered the workforce before they got married. Approximately 30% of these women were in the paid labor force in the 1950s and their number in the 1990s had risen to 66.3%. Interestingly, the number of men in the paid workforce experienced a decline even as the number of women in the workforce increased (Arvonne, 1).
Another aspect of the American family that underwent changes between the 1950s and 1990s was the sexual morals and practices. In the 1950s, the society was streamlined in terms of sexual morals and practices. There was no such thing as premarital sex or premarital cohabitation between a boy and a girl. Those who took part in premarital sex or got pregnant were ostracized from the society. There was no such acceptable thing as homosexual parents and birth control and people were also not tolerant to gays.
The 1990s represented a sexual revolution that changed the moral standing of the society as well as most practices that had been embraced in the 1950s. The 1990s saw the previously stringent attitudes of the society regarding sexual morality become more permissive. People seemed to be more permissive towards premarital sex with the focus changing from abstinence to safe sex. The attitude that premarital sex is bad declined to 24% in the mid 1990s and sexual activity in the youth increased considerably. Birth control also found its way into young people and sex education became a high school discussion. Attitude towards homosexuality became more tolerant and discrimination against the practice reduced. However, there were a considerable number of people who opposed homosexuality as well as premarital sex (Tom, 1).
The 1950 and the 1990 eras represented major differences in the American family. There is no single era that can be termed as superior to the other. The 1950s represented a fairly stable family life with high moral values and respect to the family institution. It was conservative in its definition of an appropriate family but incidences of divorce and the attached side effects especially to the children were minimal. However, the definition of a family was so rigid that it locked women out of prestigious careers.
The 1990s on the other hand represented a more liberal time with women being free from the tradition that required them to stay at home. They could pursue any career of their choice and the 1990s man took part actively in the upbringing of his children. The liberal nature of the era however opened doors to decline in morality. Divorce became more rampant and the family structure was disrupted giving the children a hard time coping with all of the after effect.
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