The future of the American family
Reihan has a fascinating post looking at the future of the American family. Basically two different family types are taken into account. The first is the neo-traditional family, which Brad Wilcox explains thusly:
I think we’re going to see a continued growth of more egalitarian marriages in a large subset of the population. But we’re going to also continue to see what I call a neo-traditional model of family life. What I mean by neo-traditional is that it’s progressive in a sense that men, particularly religious men, are investing more and more—especially in the emotional arena—in their wives and children. But it’s traditional in that there’s still some kind of effort to, in a sense, mark off who is the primary breadwinner and who is the primary nurturer. That may mean that both the husband and wife are working in the outside labor force, but there’s still some effort to give the lead for breadwinning to the husband and the lead for nurturing to the wife. This kind of neo-traditional family model is here to stay. I think that prediction is somewhat at odds with what many of my colleagues in the academy would predict.
The second is the female-only family which Annalee Newitz predicts will be quite common in the not-so-distant future:
Now that women can have children without needing a man to support them, it is going to become more common for women to have children outside marriage. But this doesn’t mean you’re necessarily going to see a rise in single motherhood. Women will be free to experiment with many different kinds of parenting arrangements, from raising children alone or with a female partner, to raising them in an extended family.
More reproductive freedom does not mean women will want to lead non-traditional lives or abandon their families. In twenty years, a woman might decide she wants children, but instead of getting married she wants to live with her parents and grandparents. Because she has the income to pay for her child’s needs, and to contribute to the family home, she now has the freedom to choose this option.
Reihan thinks Newitz is on to something, but warns “that the changing shape of family pluralism in the U.S. is cause for concern”. I tend to agree that this is cause for concern, but I’m less convinced that Newitz’s argument is all that compelling, at least in the long-term.
Newitz is making a very big leap between point A and point B – between a more empowered female population and an anti-male revolution – and I see very little to suggest that the trends she’s witnessing are anything but temporary. Sociological trends are, after all, still trends. For instance, if we had looked at divorce statistics in the 1960’s and 1970’s we might have concluded that marriage was on the way out altogether and that extremely high rates of divorce were here to stay. However, since 1990 divorce rates have steadily decreased.
There is certainly no reasons to suspect that more women will begin opting out of the workplace in the future, but nor is there any reason to believe that this will lead women to choose single-parenting families simply because they are economically capable of doing so. Modern single-mothers are often at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, so the futuristic single-income, single-parent mother Newitz describes is not of the same demographic, making comparisons difficult.
In this sense, it is hypothetically possible that women will choose to raise families without men, but only in the same way that it is possible that people will decide that not only is marriage an undesirable life decision but companionship itself is irrelevant. I find this much less plausible.
Indeed, even if we do see a future trend toward single-parenting and fatherless families by choice, I suspect we will see an even stronger social backlash to this as children who are raised without fathers grow up resistant to the idea, much as many children from divorced families grow up bitter at their parents decision to split. As divorce rates have come down, I imagine single-parenting rates will fall as well, even if marriage rates themselves do not necessarily recover.
If one considers the single-mothering trend a reaction to the traditional qua traditional family unit with the man as breadwinner and head of household and the woman as housekeeper and child-rearer, then one should also note that the neo-traditional family is a similar if less radical reaction. Neo-traditional families are also more sustainable than either very traditional or very non-traditional or single-parent families because they maintain much of what was good about traditional family roles, but couple them with higher family income, a better division of labor and more modern sexual and parenting roles.
Note also that both neo-traditional families and the sort of single-mother families that Newitz describes are typically composed of upper or upper-middle class professionals. This will trickle down eventually, accelerating one or both trends. I suspect, and it is my hope, that neo-traditional families become the norm, while single-parenting eventually returns to the exception not the rule.