“We’re seeing a class divide not only between the haves and the have-nots, but between the I do’s and the I do nots,” Dr. Those who are enjoying the perks of a good marriage “wouldn’t stand for any other kind,” she said, while those who would benefit most from marital stability “are the ones least likely to have the resources to sustain it.” Yet across the divide runs a white picket fence, our unshakable star-spangled belief in the value of marriage and family. “It means everything,” said Linda Mc Adam, 28, who is in human resources on Long Island. “It’s almost like a weight,” said Rob Fee, 26, a financial analyst in San Francisco, “a heavy weight.” Or as the comedian George Burns said, “Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city.” In charting the differences between today’s families and those of the past, demographers start with the kids — or rather the lack of them.
We marry, divorce and remarry at rates not seen anywhere else in the developed world. The nation’s birthrate today is half what it was in 1960, and last year hit its lowest point ever.
Sixty-two percent of the public, and 72 percent of adults under 30, view the ideal marriage as one in which husband and wife both work and share child care and household duties; back when Jimmy Carter was president, less than half of the population approved of the dual-income family, and less than half of 1 percent of husbands knew how to operate a sponge mop.
Mothers are bringing home more of the bacon, and of the mortarboards, too.
The typical American family, if it ever lived anywhere but on Norman Rockwell’s Thanksgiving canvas, has become as multilayered and full of surprises as a holiday turducken — the all-American seasonal portmanteau of deboned turkey, duck and chicken.
Researchers who study the structure and evolution of the American family express unsullied astonishment at how rapidly the family has changed in recent years, the transformations often exceeding or capsizing those same experts’ predictions of just a few journal articles ago.
The number of women who are their families’ sole or primary breadwinner also has soared, to 40 percent today from 11 percent in 1960.
Nor are unmarried mothers typically in their teens; contrary to all the talk of an epidemic of teenage motherhood, the birthrate among adolescent girls has dropped by nearly half since 1991 and last year hit an all-time low, a public health triumph that experts attribute to better sex education and birth-control methods.
Most unmarried mothers today, demographers say, are in their 20s and early 30s.
Single people live alone and proudly consider themselves families of one — more generous and civic-minded than so-called “greedy marrieds.” “There are really good studies showing that single people are more likely than married couples to be in touch with friends, neighbors, siblings and parents,” said Bella De Paulo, author of “Singled Out” and a visiting professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “There are not just more types of families and living arrangements than there used to be,” said Stephanie Coontz, author of the coming book “Intimate Revolutions,” and a social historian at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.
“Most people will move through several different types over the course of their lives.” At the same time, the old-fashioned family plan of stably married parents residing with their children remains a source of considerable power in America — but one that is increasingly seen as out of reach to all but the educated elite. “It’s the backbone of how we live,” said David Anderson, 52, an insurance claims adjuster from Chicago.