Posts Tagged ‘family’

The Giving Season… and Era

Every time I cash in on being (just barely) a senior citizen – at the movie line, on the subway, for example – I feel a twinge of guilt. The elderly, on average, can better afford such items than can young adults, especially those raising small children. Yet the system of discounts for age, like much else these days – say, Medicare vs. Medicaid – is slanted toward seniors. The logic is rooted in an earlier time.

Back in the day – say, before the ’60s – the assumption was that most old people could make it through their sunset years only with financial and personal help from their grown children. In last few decades, the flow of money and of energy has been largely going the other way (see earlier post).

In two new overview papers (pdf and pdf), sociologists Judith Seltzer and Suzanne Bianchi document the help many American seniors are giving their adult children long past the school years, be it directly with money or through help such as babysitting. (Bianchi, a terrific scholar of American family life, passed away recently, much too soon.) Among the less well-off, parents might largely help by re-opening a bedroom at home or providing after-school care. One study found that about 3 of 10 pre-schoolers are with grandparents when the parents are at work. Among the most affluent, parental help can include buying 20-somethings their own Manhattan apartments (see here and here).


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Back Home


Studio (source)

One of the major lifestyle changes of the twentieth century was the dramatic increase in the proportion of Americans who lived alone. [1] Virtually outlawed in Early America, rarely done in the early twentieth century, it became a stage of life for many Americans, especially for elderly women, by the end of the century. (In 2000, about one-third of American women 65 and older were living alone.) The question of whether this trend is a good or bad thing has been a matter of concern. Eric Klinenberg’s recent best-seller, Going Solo, conveys the positive side of the discussion (see also this earlier post).

Another side of the discussion is trying to make sense of why Americans increasingly chose to live alone. Is it because Americans became increasingly disaffected with family or because Americans became increasingly able to afford their own living spaces? The recent economic shocks we have gone through provide a way to contrast people’s “tastes” for solo living versus their budgets for solo living.


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The ’60s Turn 50

We have a commemoration going on about the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and the great social changes, such as the Emancipation Proclamation, which accompanied it. There’s another anniversary coming up over the next 12 months or so: the 50th anniversary of “The ‘60s,” by which I mean the 1960s as a distinct social, cultural era. It did not really begin in 1960 nor end in 1970. It began, culturally speaking, roughly in 1963-64 and petered out in the early-to-mid 1970s. If one is looking for a start date, perhaps the March on Washington, August 28, 1963, is a good marker (video); or President Kennedy’s assassination, November 22, 1963 (video); or the Beatles’ arrival in America, February 7, 1964 (video). Somewhere around then.

People often think that their time – particularly the period of their youth – is the fulcrum of history (see this study). Everything before we were about 14 or 15 is old, everything after is totally new. (Novelist Willa Cather famously wrote that “the world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts”; historian Warren Sussman preferred 1905.) We are usually wrong. Some periods, however, are distinct and fateful for different reasons. For the generation that grew to adulthood in the 1960s, it was about rapid cultural change, a change apparently set off by earlier, rapid demographic change.


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Paying Attention to the Kids

Whether Americans are doing right by their kids is a recurrent subject of often bitter debate. With controversies about the “tiger mom,” or “helicopter parents,” or career women “dumping” their children on others, or men doing their share, there is no end of worry about whether 21st-century American parents are properly committed to their children.

Some recent data suggests that American parents in the last generation have been at least trying harder than parents did decades ago. They are spending more money on their kids and, given their work schedules, spending more time with their kids. This trend developed in the face of other trends have made attending to kids more and more difficult: the growth of single parenting, the entry of most mothers into the labor force, and the exacerbated financial strains on middle- and working-class families. While parents are making the effort, as is so often the case these days, widening inequality makes it harder for some parents and kids than others.


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The Elderly and Their Children

An item from the Global Times of Beijing:

On Dec. 28 [2012], China passed a law requiring adult children to visit their elderly parents “often,” or risk repercussions. The law is a response to the increasing difficulty of caring for an aging population that will reach 200 million this year. The law does not specify the number of required visits or possible punishments.

Old couple and their granddaughter farming in hilly Ozark country, Missouri

Ozarks (Source)

American social historians and sociologists have devoted much time to studying Americans’ ties to their elderly parents – a way of assessing what may have changed in family feelings and family values over the generations, and also, it turns out, of assessing how government policies affect family life. We haven’t reached — and are unlikely to — the Chinese condition.


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Out- and Insourcing

Need a date? Log in to a dating service. Need to feed dinner guests? Call a caterer. Your kid is applying for college? Hire a counselor. Have a worry? Sign up with a therapist or life coach. Don’t do it yourself, buy it – whatever “it” is.


Sociologist Arlie Hochschild, the author of innovative, path-breaking books such as The Managed Heart, The Second Shift, and The Time Bind, has another one coming, The Outsourced Self, which she previewed in May 6’s New York Times (here). In the article, she points out the many personal goods and services that one can buy these days. And she worries that something is being sacrificed for the convenience and efficiency of the market, that by outsourcing we are losing a part of our selves and of our intimate ties.

My small contribution in this post is to add – as I often do in conversations with Arlie, who is a long-time friend and Berkeley colleague – a historical dimension. Outsourcing personal services is not new in this or even the last century. More striking still, Americans have in recent generations turned to insourcing critical family goods and services that we once outsourced.


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Spinsters No More

Among the familiar characters in 19th century novels are the spinsters – the “spinster aunts” who lived with a brother or sister’s family; also the “spinster daughters” who stayed home with their elderly parent(s). These characters seem to have decamped from modern fiction. No wonder, there are a lot fewer of them in modern life. To be sure, many adult American women today remain unmarried for life, but they rarely inhabit either of these two classic spinster roles.

Some of the disappearance can be credited to demographic changes, but more to other developments that have allowed women once destined to be such spinsters to avoid that fate. American women’s escape from these roles, like most other social changes, came with a price.


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Living Togetherness

People of a certain age (like me) can recall a time when the phrases “living together in sin” or “shacking up” were spoken in an embarrassed whisper. One did not discuss such things in front of the children or in polite company. When movie stars were revealed to have done it, newspapers printed scandalized headlines. Nowadays, “living together” is not only an everyday phrase, it is a stage most Americans under 60 have gone through before marriage and, sometimes, after a marriage ends.

source: ourcathlolicmarriage

This change is another startling social revolution that has become banally “normal” in America (like mothers working; see this post). It is, of course, connected to a related social revolution: the general acceptance of premarital sex between adults. A third related change, the increase in children born out of wedlock and living without their fathers, is a different matter – it has not become banally normal and has had some difficult consequences. But, living together or cohabiting, once a hushed secret, is now, in many parts of America, an expected part of adulthood. What happened?


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The Big Change

What’s the biggest change in the American way of life in the last 50-60 years? There are a lot of candidates: the coming of new technologies, especially the computer and internet; the end of the post-war boom and the start of economic stagnation for average Americans; much more liberal and open sexual mores; the dismantling of the racial caste system capped by the election of a black president; and so on. These were all important, but my candidate for the Big Change Award is this: Mom goes to work.


To be sure, mothers always worked – at home for their families, doing housework and childcare. And many mothers also worked at home for pay – farm women churning butter or gathering eggs for sale; poor urban women indoors spinning, weaving, and sewing, paid by the piece. Some mothers, particularly African and Irish American mothers, worked away from home, usually as servants and maids. Still, in the early 20th century, relatively few American mothers with children at home, rarely those with young children, went out to work. Then everything changed. And then maybe the change stopped.


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American Ties (II)

The American family has changed greatly in the last couple of generations – some call that change a “breakdown” and others prefer a term like “evolution.” For one, the family starts later; that is, Americans marry and have their first children at an older age they used to. For another, the family is smaller, with fewer children. The decline in family size largely took place in the ‘60s and ‘70s and then leveled off. Fewer children born since the 1960s means that today’s adults have fewer sibs, aunts, uncles, and cousins than Americans did 40 years ago. A rough calculation suggests that the average American today has about 25% fewer blood kin than the average American of the 1970s had.

A.F. Burns, U. of FL.

But what most people mean when they say the family has changed, broken down, or evolved is less about the quantity and more about the quality of family ties – something about how much people are involved with kin, rely on kin, care about kin. That is a lot harder to measure than simple numbers, but there are fragmentary survey data. And they suggest a complex picture of change and continuity.

(Disclosure: This post is part of an occasional series drawing from my new book, Still Connected: Family and Friends in America since 1970. Further details can be found there.  A previous post focused on friends and confidants.)

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