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Joined at the Heart – The Transformation of the American Family

The Fadleys’ story offers a vivid illustration of how much the American family has changed over the past two generations. Both Dick and Susan were born in the early 1960s — he in 1961, she in 1962 — which proved to be the fault line of an era. America in the period right after World War II for the most part seemed conservative, traditional, and homogeneous.

In fact, many changes were afoot. Turmoil in the South was sparked when African-American servicemen returned from World War II to rightfully claim full and equal rights, eventually leading to the Supreme Court’s reversal of officially sanctioned school segregation.

Contrary to popular impression, the rate of teenage pregnancies peaked in 1957. Still, the 1950s were certainly placid compared to what came in the 1960s: the full-blown civil rights movement, the sexual revolution, feminism, distrust of government, the beginnings of the modem environmental movement, and many other trends that still affect our lives. It was a remarkable decade in our culture, when everything, including families, began to change dramatically.

If the Fadleys provide one snapshot of how much has changed in the past forty years, the U.S. Census Bureau and other government statistics provide another. When the reams of data gathered by the Census Bureau and other government sources are reduced to their essence, what emerges is a kind of family portrait of America.

We decided to compare the statistical portrait taken in 2000 with the one taken in 1960, and then isolate the ten trends we think are the most important. When you place these snapshots side by side, some of the differences are truly startling; families today are as different as Ozzie Nelson, of Ozzie and Harriet fame, and Ozzy Osbourne of The Osbournes, a “reality” television show that’s surprisingly popular at the moment.

Ten Key Trends in the Changing American Family

1. Americans are creating fewer married-with-children families. Married couples with children under age eighteen now represent only 35 percent of all families; they made up over half of all families in 1960.

2. The divorce rate has doubled. For every four marriages in 1960, there was one divorce. There is now a divorce for every two marriages. However, Americans have continued to remarry at rates comparable to or higher than in 1960, leading to an increase in the number of blended families.

3. Single parents head more families. Single parent families with children under age eighteen, only five percent of all families in 1960, now account for 13 percent. Those families now raise almost one in three children under age eighteen, a steep increase from the one in ten just two generations ago.

4. More children are being born to unmarried mothers. In 1960, only 5 percent of American children were born to unmarried mothers. In 2000, only two generations later, the comparable figure was 33 percent, a six-fold increase.

5. More mothers are working outside the home. By 2000, more than 60 percent of married mothers with young children worked outside the home, three times as many as in 1960.

6. Fewer people are married. In 1960, almost 70 percent of the entire marriageable population was married. In 2000, just over 55 percent were married. The number of cohabiting unmarried couples as a proportion of all households increased five-fold from 1960 to 2000.

7. Families are forming later. Forty years ago, women married at about age twenty and men at about age twenty-three. Now, women are about twenty-five and men about twenty-seven at their first marriage. Children are coming much later as well: today, a quarter of all women have not yet had a child before they turn thirty-five, almost double the rate in 1960.

8. Families are having fewer children. The average family had 2.3 children in 1960 and only 1.9 in 2000. (And yes, we know that’s impossible, but these are statistics after all!)

9. More grandparents are playing an active role in raising children. The average life span today is approaching eighty years old, nearly ten years longer than it was in 1960. More than 5.5 million grandparents now share a home with one or more grandchildren. The proportion of children being cared for by grandparents has gone up, particularly for families where the middle generation is a single parent or not present.

10. Families are becoming more diverse. In 1960, America was about 90 percent white, and there were fewer than 200,000 interracial couples, accounting for less than half a percent of all married couples. Now, America is 75 percent white, and there are almost 1.5 million interracial couples, representing almost 3 percent of all married couples. If marriages between Hispanics and non-Hispanics are included, the proportion of diverse marriages is much higher still.

There are, of course, a lot of other statistics we could cite, but the main point ought to be clear. In the last two generations, the American family has undergone a profound transformation, one that will forever change the way we think of ourselves as individuals, family members, and citizens. The classic nuclear family of our childhood — the breadwinning dad, the homemaker mom, two or three kids — is not gone, but it’s very much a minority of families now. Alongside it today are two-income families, single-parent families, and a host of other types. When you compare the snap shot taken in 1960 with the one taken in 2000, the face of the American family — like the country as a whole — looks entirely different.

Copyright © 2002 Al and Tipper Gore

Book Excerpt: Joined at the Heart: The Transformation of the American Family by Al and Tipper Gore.