At the core of the discussion between those who would continue to privilege two-parent biological, marital families, and those of us who seek responsible parenthood irrespective of family form is disagreement on how to get to a society that provides greater support for all our families. We believe that the one prescription likely to have the greatest impact on family health would be a laser-like focus on employment: Provide better jobs for blue collar men at the losing end of the economic transformations and for single mothers struggling to get by and the family will take care of itself. The question of why more people do not create two-parent married families – and why American marriages and cohabitations are more likely to dissolve than those abroad – is not about morality. It is, instead, about the relationship between the family and the larger society.
The family is not an unchanging monolith that has taken the same form in every era and in every country. Evil stepparents are a staple of grim fairy tales for a reason, as death rather than divorce made historical marriages no more likely to last than today’s fragile unions. Societies have, in fact, always varied widely in how they channel resources to the next generation, and even within nuclear families, the organization of roles has changed in response to economic conditions. What once made marriage close to universal was socialization into a system that provided jobs that paid a family wage, did so only for men, and simultaneously restricted women’s economic and reproductive autonomy. Today, that system is, thankfully, no longer in place, and what prevents its resurrection is less the commitment to the equality of women than a new economy that no longer rewards male brawn over other skills.
In our contribution to this volume, we view changes in the family largely as an incomplete response to the needs of a new, technologically driven economy. That economy rewards education and investment in the market potential of both men and women. Realizing the benefits of that investment, however, delays readiness for family life into the mid-to-late twenties, if not later. The most stable families have been those that embraced the change, promoting education for both men and women, and postponing childbearing until the adults have reached a measure of financial independence and emotional maturity. These families have adopted more flexible attitudes toward gender and a commitment to manage reproduction. The new system respects the life and reproductive choices of the mature and the independent; single parenthood for a professional at thirty is a different matter than it is for anyone at seventeen. Yet, for those who succeed, two-parent families largely follow as a matter of course.
The challenge for any model, however, is growing inequality in the society as a whole. This greater inequality makes the search for the right partner more perilous. In another era, an executive might have married his secretary. Today, he is much more likely to marry a fellow executive, and, indeed, college graduate men have become much more likely to marry college graduate women than a generation ago. At the same time, the new economy effectively writes off a high percentage of low-income men as unmarriageable due to high rates of chronic unemployment, imprisonment, violence and substance abuse.
The changing fortunes at the top and the bottom are not just a matter of short-term adjustments to employment prospects. They create self-reinforcing patterns of behavior. At the top, the search for the right partner is as important as entrance into the right college, and both men and women both understand that continued education and a steady job is the ticket not just to greater income, but better family prospects. For others, neither the good job nor the stable relationship may be attainable. The effect of writing off such a high percentage of men as disposable has been to create a gender mismatch. The women, who increasingly outnumber the marriageable men, come to the conclusion that in a world in which men have less to offer in terms of either reliable income or trustworthy behavior the only security comes from investing in themselves and their children. The better off men in these communities find that they can play the field, and the women, after too many disappointments, see the men as a threat, not an advantage, to their ability to raise their children.
We believe that it critical to assess the links between inequality, employment, and the family and, at a minimum, to consider measures that provide greater family security at a time of greater employment instability. Consequently, until the study of the family is reintegrated into a larger discussion of social and economic forces, true understanding of the changing nature of family structure is impossible.