Family Crisis
The Future of Families in the 21st Century

Here we are in the 21st Century.  The family has undergone many and varied changes to its form and function. Feminists, historians, and futurists have attempted to chart the course of the family in the next century.

Feminist Thoughts on the Family
All of social science has been effected and has effected the growth of feminism as a political perspective. The Feminist Movement began prior to 1900. Early feminists were involved in establishing social reforms - coming from service orientations and occupations. Lately, feminism has begun to perform critical analyses of the family and engaged in efforts to change traditional family arrangements, legitimizing alternative gender and household roles, and generally challenging comprehensive male authority, especially in financial and child rearing areas. Basic Assumptions of Feminist Thinking

  • The traditional family arrangement is a social invention, with no substantive biological, natural, or timelessly functional basis.
  • Analysis of gender differences should be done in terms of ability, division of labor, and distribution of wealth and power in order to yield identification of the family's underlying structure.
  • The glorification of motherhood, love and images of the family as a domestic haven (in other words the cultural ideal of the family) have actually served (as it turns out) to subordinate and oppress women as a group. Women experience the family differently from men.
  • Traditional definitions of family boundaries _ private vs. public, family vs. society, have served to isolate women and children form healthful social contact and support.
  • The concepts of individualism and equality are not consistent with the real application of capitalistic ideals.

Feminists use the standard social science techniques of research--psychological protocols, personality profiles, survey research, case studies, and so on. The value of the feminist orientation is not so much that new theories have been generated, but that the perspective adds a new dimension to any existing theory to which it is applied. Thus, feminism is an important addition to family theory--almost a new world view--that can yield surprising results.

People sometimes have a tough time understanding that the truth of science could somehow be influenced by the gender of the researchers. After all, the truth is, by definition, the truth. But it isn't really that simple. Feminists would remind us all that psychiatric practices from the 1940s through the late 1960s, a time when the professions were dominated by male practitioners, had women as a vast majority as their clientele. Male physicians were prescribing dangerous amounts of sedative drugs to sick women. After women began to pursue careers in mental health fields, the number of women under treatment, and severity of diagnoses declined dramatically.

The truths that we hold in sociology, psychology, political science, even family studies, are being redefined by new professionals with feminist points of view. We have seen the rise of women's awareness in our own time, although the roots of the women's movement extend back into the 19th century. Today's high divorce rate, difficulties in raising children, failed parenting, the "man/woman" crisis, are all symptoms of a changing social and political structure in world society. These problems aren't particular to U.S. culture. They are easily detectable around the world, in industrialized and third world countries alike. The rise of awareness of women's issues, which are really human issues since they affect all of us, have at least four root causes:

  • -Increasing numbers of women in the paid work force. Women, like men, work outside the home because they need the money, not because they enjoy the interaction.
  • -Increased geographic mobility of the American family. As families began to move, on the average of once every five years, the traditional social network of extended kin was replaced by a more professional group of service personnel.
  • -Increased numbers of women entering higher education, earning college degrees and other credentials and finding little opportunity to exercise their knowledge in status quo markets.
  • -Increased awareness, in general, of political interests. This is where we'll begin.

The Women's Suffrage Movement (circa 1890) began in England, with such luminaries as John Stuart Mill, and others. The movement extended to the U.S. with the Right to Vote earned by women in 1909. After this victory, efforts in the areas of rights to work, management of finances and property, and birth control were made by people such as Ellen Richards, Anna Freud, Margaret Sanger, and many others.

The period from 1916 until 1945 was punctuated by world wars (feminists sometimes refer to war as diversions from primary goals), where women took their place in defense plants and war support areas. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, the American civil rights movement and the social upheavals surrounding the Viet Nam War took energy away from feminists, who remained relatively quiet. These efforts (i.e., Civil Rights & Anti-War movements) contributed to the revival of feminism during the 1970s. Another factor seldom mentioned, but much more important to the "woman on the street" was the introduction of reliable, though not always safe, birth control. The "pill", first introduced on a wide scale in 1964 allowed women to entertain thoughts of escaping the biological determinism of motherhood. Feminists were charged with rejecting the notion of motherhood and family, rejecting their very womanhood, but nothing could have been further from the truth.

Despite misunderstandings, feminists were not fighting to keep women from becoming mothers, but to simply inform women of their choices! Even women who denied their feminist leanings were voting pro-choice by exercising their option to reduce the number of children they would bear, and to choose when their children would be born. The development of a new class of women, bright and credentialed and unencumbered with several children, who would be willing to think and write about women's issues was a natural progression.

Another factor, a latent function according to Merton, is the character of the economy after Viet Nam and a wartime economy, which moved from a labor intensive to an information management intensive mode. This evolution of the economy discounted male superior muscle tone in favor of anyone who was willing to think things through. This opened the labor market to everyone willing or able to go to college and get some credentials. So we arrived at a set of social circumstances that were in conflict with relationship conditions.

Women have always had the bottom line choice to follow their own creative urges. However, social conditions made the choice toward achievement outside of marriage and family less easily chosen and more costly to choose. Suddenly women have more real choices than they have ever had. Before it was chocolate or vanilla--marriage to somebody--stay at home, and maybe work a little. Today, women are expected to rear children and work outside the home at the same time. Their options are a virtual Baskin-Robbins of options, each option carrying certain risks. With my daughter's birth in 1976 came a new dawn in social science. Feminist perspectives on the family now occupy a positive force for changing some of the ways in which individuals think about their children, and possibly improving the way their lives will progress.

The idea behind Feminism has always been the improvement of living conditions for 75% of the population (children and women). Feminism has little or nothing to do with the way men and women relate to each other in any truly intimate way. It has to do with Big Picture ideas, such as:

  • EDUCATION for anyone willing to undertake it.
  • JUST REWARDS FOR WORK EXPENDED for anyone who wants them.
  • FAIR TREATMENT UNDER THE LAW, in the courts, on the streets, in school, in church, in government.

Raising up a family is very serious business. The chances for failure are sometimes much more likely than the chances for success. The traditional American Family, especially as it was portrayed on television, never really existed at all in the United States. Women Working Outside the Home
Since the turn of the century (particularly since 1940), women (particularly married women) have gone into the paid labor force in increasing numbers. While women have always worked outside the home for pay, the numbers of working women with children at home has increased dramatically:

The number of men and women in the workforce
Lauer & Lauer, 1992
1940 1988
All Women over 16 years old 27% 57%
All Men over 16 years old 56% 57%


Today half of all the employment slots in the U.S. are held by women. Obviously women's increased employment has effected a reduction in their family roles with little or no increase in husband's family roles. You would think that because women are working more, men would be likely to pick up their slack regarding domestic chores and parenting of children. This doesn't usually happen unless a husband is laid off from work. No real trade off is ever made, unless:

            • the husband is nontraditional
            • the husband and wife have been to college
            • the difference in their incomes is small

Studies consistently show that 75% of wives who work do all or most of the housework too. Additionally, women who work and do the housework are less satisfied with marriage, children, and life, and are less confident of their abilities. Husbands have traditionally been marginal figures in the traditional American Family Ideal. He has never been as emotionally involved in his family as the wife/mother. So - employed wives (upwards of 70% of all married women with children) face considerable strain and exhaustion in both their work and family roles and will continue to be overloaded until husbands catch up on their equal part of the family commitments.

Researcher/theorists have posited a "psychosocial lag" between changes in women's lives and changes in the lives of men. Why do women work? For some because of a need for fulfillment, others because home life doesn't fill up their time, still others work because they enjoy their jobs. Most women work outside the home for the same reasons most men work--because they and their families need the money. Here are some statistics:

  • 39% of wives & 31% of husbands believe both spouses should work.
  • More husbands than wives believe wives shouldn't work at all.
  • 67.6% of women say they would quit their jobs and stay home if it were financially possible for them to do so. (Lauer and Lauer, 1992).

In other words, wives have out of necessity gone to work for pay, while husbands have not changed their minds or habits regarding their part in the marriage and family. Actually, this one change--women going to work--occurred because of an entire change in the American Economic System.

Remember the Functional Model of Society? American Society is made up of Institutions, each one dependent on the others for its "behavior", all blending their effects to make up the American Way of Life. When a change occurs in one of the institutions, that causes changes throughout the entire social system. So, when the economy changes from a labor intensive, industry driven, manufacturing based economy to something else--like an information age, service-oriented economy--then we don't need as many big strong men with sweaty upper bodies to work.

Soft, round, demure people can think through tough management problems in the new order just as well. Muscle development has little to do with computer operation, telephone business, or office work.

Status Quo politics maintain traditional norms and values that are not necessarily good for the people inside families. For example, President Nixon, in 1972 vetoed the National Child Care Bill making it harder for women to work. Women still went to work, because their families needed the money, and family members all suffered the consequences. The American Woman was squeezed between the cultural ideal of motherhood and the economic reality that she must work to live.

So, without realizing the national crisis, individual families began to fizzle out, break up, dissolve under the pressure. Most of those families understand that they failed--it was their fault. They live with the dissatisfaction that they feel with life, but with no understanding of the near global nature of the problem. They don't know, for example, that high divorce rates are part of every modernized country - Canada, all over Europe, the former Soviet Union, every place where women work as much as men, and men don't perceive their family role as a nurturant one.

That, as I see it is the problem in a rather large nutshell. What looks like disorganized family structures is really an unresponsive government that has decreased economic opportunities across the country. Feminists would agree that the problems of a disorganized family system are results of men and women working long hours for little pay in situations of underemployment or unemployment.

These are poverty issues, and people are afraid of becoming poor and homeless. To maintain adequate parenting of children when nobody is home for them requires some kind of substitute parents. Quality child care is expensive, and people don't see it as an investment in their children.

Conclusion to the Course

In this course, we have dealt with some of the major and not-so-major theories that guide research and thinking about families in crisis. Since the beginning of the course, we have come from the intuitive models of the family (all riddled with statistical inaccuracies, romantic ideals, and flat, one dimensional images of family members) toward an increasingly more sophisticated picture.

What we now know is that family life, by definition, is crisis.
Every stage of development of the individual family member, of the couple, and of the extended kinship network of a family has inherent crisis events and problems that must be solved.

In your essay examinations, you demonstrated that theorizing about the family is anything but a straightforward endeavor--it is very complicated. And we still don't have a unified theory!

Well, here it is! My answer to the question,

"What should an all-encompassing family theory include".

As you all should know by now, I believe there is a conspiracy--a specter if you will--haunting American ideology. Mine is the kind of theory that explains plastic covers on new furniture, why we feel so bad when we dent our cars, and why we can be surrounded by luxury and still be dissatisfied with our families and our lives.

We are confused as a nation about our wants, desires, and needs.
The culprit is a social ideal that motivates us hell-bent toward amassing stuff to the exclusion of maintaining relationships.

We want what society--what IT--wants us to want.

We have desires because they are good for the company.
We have needs that require us to buy products that will lend us the appropriate level of desirability to the opposite sex, to the same sex, to our superiors, and to our inferiors.

This condition is encompassed in folk sayings, such as:

  • Things perceived as real will be real in their consequences. W.I. Thomas
  • Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die! Bunny Wailer
  • My memory is deficient on that one, Senator. President Reagan
  • Yes, I did smoke marijuana one time, but I didn't inhale President Clinton
  • People have a right to know if their President is a crook! President Nixon
  • I'd rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy. Tom Waits
  • The blues ain't nothin' but a good man feeling bad. Dalton Pilsbury

If we divide the universe of human interaction into four non-mutually exclusive parts, we have a little table:

The Individual Part I, Me, He and She The Social Part Global We
The Primary Group Part Us and We Them The Economic Part It

We should all agree that these are the parts (except for the Economic one, perhaps), but how do they fit together?

Part of the answer lies in the notions of real and ideal culture, from cultural anthropology.

Housed in the ideal are the dominant values of our society that are shared by all its members. Concerning the family, these ideals would be notions about loving your spouse forever, providing a wholesome environment for our children, rearing children to be of good character and mind, and a general state of blissful happiness.

Housed in the reality of our culture are results of living in society that are, at best, removed from the ideal. Where we sing popular tunes about everlasting love, there is divorce, family violence, or at least a cooling off of the romantic fires that we stoked so vigorously early on in our relationships. The little house we bought in the neighborhood that seemed so wholesome for our children yet to come, now sits in a faltering neighborhood with alcoholic neighbors, drug sales on the corner or at the schoolhouse door, and increasing numbers of "those" undesirables moving in.

In other words, for every ideal, there is an equal and often opposite reality with which we have to contend, or so it seems.

The Ideal The Real
  • Everlasting Love
  • Passion
  • Nurturance
  • Compassion
  • Fairness
  • It's a Small World After All
  • Divorce, Family troubles
  • Violence, abuse
  • Neglect
  • Carelessness Happiness Depression
  • Injustice
  • It's a Jungle Out There

This is NOT a cynical or pessimistic view of things. It is, in fact, a very real, though alternative, point of view from the normal.

Why is it that what we value in the ideal is often so far removed from the reality of our lives?
And if our lives measure up, more or less to the ideal, then the lives of friends or acquaintances don't.

Maybe it is because we are caught in a crossfire of competing demands. Perhaps the needs of society don't always match our own, even though we want them to match so desperately.

Maybe the needs of society aren't always good for its members. And maybe we are too lazy to think the whole thing through and do something about the disparity between reality and ideal.

There are two possible ways for a person to live their lives, given my little model.

One can live as if The Ideal is Real - or One can live as if the Real is Ideal
serving the Individual
and the Primary Group first
then the Social
and finally the Economic
serving the Economy first,
then the Individual
then the social
and finally the Primary Group
Here, individuals are most important and most valued - you and your best pals, your children. The Primary group, social relations, and the Economy exist only to serve the folks. Here truth and beauty exist as real ideals. There is no such thing as Bleeding heart Liberals or Crack-pot Reactionaries, only works in progress. Hope, Love and Compassion for one's dearest others are the currency of the Local Economy. there is room for everybody. Here the individual's search for economy security is the most important. All other aspects of life exist to serve the economy because from IT comes all good things. The only Ideal is the chase for the money - making it good for oneself and one's own. children should be seen and not heard. Social relations exist only to further one's career. Primary Group is negated - a millstone around our necks. the only abuse is that which is inflicted me.
Here, Each person takes care of everyone in his
or her field of vision.
Here, Furniture is for sitting.
Here, a car is for getting around in.
Here luxury is a cold drink on a hot day.
Here, people are the solution to problems.
Here is where most folks would like to be.
Here, Each person is out for themselves only. Get all you can grab.
Here, Furniture is for looking at.
Here, one is defined by his vehicle.
Here, luxury is always just out of reach.
Here, people are the problem.
Here is where most folks probably are.

Our theories have all held that actions are born out of beliefs ... "things perceived as real will be real in their consequences."

The Structural Functionalists, for example, would see media as highlighting those aspects of family life that are prosocial. (i.e., black families are poor but happy, troubles of all single women are solved when they find a man, trouble always comes to those who get rich the easy way, and nothing beats an intact family).

It just may be that we desire to become the stereotyped images we watch.
Have we allowed ourselves to become the "cold commercialized" versions of the families we see?

Certainly, judging by the huge successes of some of the movies and television programs, we have substituted real personal experiences with other human beings for the media experience. We tend to vicariously participate in the joys and sorrows of actors playing family roles on the screen, and feel a certain pride when Mallory (Family Ties) gets a good test grade or one of the Cosby Kids comes to grips with a fundamental fact of life.

We do these things while our own families may be caught in a downward spiral of low level functioning. I have actually witnessed a father shushing his daughter, who was attempting to draw his attention to the "A" she got on a school project, because he wanted to watch the Cosby Show was on television. The daughter was actually competing with Mallory for her Dad's attention. And her father will, in the years to come, desperately wish for a second chance at that moment when his daughter WANTED to talk to him.

She'll get the message soon, and will never think to herself that her father cares much about her. If media wasn't so popular, we wouldn't need to consider its impact. Short of Satanic Messages hidden in the grooves of rock and roll records, there probably is some wisdom in paying attention to and doing research on the effects of media. The effects of becoming a nation of spectators can be empty, hollow, and soulless. We have a choice. We can believe in television, or we can make our own video movies. We can become big fans of popular musicians, or we can learn how to play our own music. We can sit and wish and want, or we can pick up a tool and make something. We can wait and hope for our families to love us, or we can actively court the affections of these people in an effort to make the world a better place. I can honestly say I have never seen a movie character who had a life that I would trade mine for.

One Christmas years ago, when my father was having a very hard time making ends meet, he gave me the best present I could have ever received as a child. Since he had no money to spend, he rounded up a set of wood working tools from spares he had. He sharpened all the edges, polished and painted them, and even made a tool box for me to carry them. On Christmas morning, he gave me my present and a big block of wood. He said, "Dave, your present is inside this wood block. It is your job to get it out, and I'll help you."

My dad was well read, especially for someone without a formal education. Through his demeanor toward me, my dad let me know in no uncertain terms that he held me in what psychologists call "unconditional positive regard". He never raised his hand or his voice to me, and always seemed happy to see me. He taught me how to work, take up for myself, and value that which is important in life. He never gave me money, but showed me how to make my own instead. He never told me what to do, but always showed me where to find answers to my endless questions.

Growing up, I noticed other boys whose fathers didn't measure up to mine. I felt sorry for them then, as I do now. Today, although my dad is a thousand miles away, when I have troubles, I can actually feel his hand on my shoulder helping me steady my load. In this course, we've attempted to explain the complexity of family life that resides in a society filled with seemingly inconsistent values.

The playing field on which family members live their lives is hardly level. In fact, it doesn't even hold its shape from one generation to the next. Expectations change as life becomes easier and more difficult at the same time. I wouldn't want to be a teenager today under any circumstances. Still, there are millions of teens out there who are ignorant of what life holds in store for them. Family theorists would be better off to incorporate some of my father's "build it yourself" philosophy. If we don't like the way things are working out, then change those things in our corner of the world, right now, and without complaining. It is our society, after all.