Transcript for Future Families - Stephanie Coontz

Jim Fleming: Alright, we're through the work day in 2050. Time to socialize. Maybe head home to spend time with the family. But as home and work change, so do families. The person we turn to for insight into family life is Stephanie Coontz. She teaches History and Family Studies at Evergreen College. Now Stephanie says she's a historian, not a futurist. So Anne asked her about how American families are changing right now, starting with a recent news headline.


Anne Strainchamps: Stephanie, the Supreme Court just gave same-sex couples access to the same marriage benefits as heterosexual couples, something that just 10 years ago would've seemed unthinkable. How else have our ideas of marriage and family changed in recent years?


Stephanie Coontz: Well, I would say that the change on the acceptance of same-sex marriage is one of the most rapid, stunningly rapid, when you think that is was the least likely to be accepted in terms of the changes that have occurred in the the last 50 years. You know, people say, well I'm for women's rights or I'm for integration, but not for same-sex marriage and yet the opposition which started higher receded more quickly than opposition to any other social issue, so it's really a stunning change. I think that our ideas and values about marriage and family have changed in less than half a century more than they've changed in the the two-and-a-half centuries preceding and actually one could make an argument than they've changed in the last 5000 years.


Strainchamps: I know it's hard to believe when you think back this year marked the 50th anniversary of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique and we take it for granted today that gender equality in a marriage is a desirable thing, but when she wrote that book that wasn't the case.


Coontz: No, more than 2/3 of Americans in 1963 agreed that the man should make the final decisions in the home. The man should be the breadwinner. So all of that has turned around, really, just in the last 30, 40 years.


Strainchamps: Yeah, to the point that I think the majority of women today work, am I right?


Coontz: The majority of women work, yes. There are more single parent families than there are male breadwinner, female homemaker families in America.


Strainchamps: And then I think thinking about men, men's roles have changed a great deal too. I think men spend a significant portion more time parenting today than they did even 20 years ago.


Coontz: Men have tripled the amount of childcare they do and more than doubled the amount of house care they do over the last few decades. And now we're seeing that men are demanding an active role in family life. In intact marriages they're spending more time with their kids than ever before and if a divorce occurs, more men are fighting for joint custody or spending more time with their kids.


Strainchamps: Yeah. The historical perspective is really fascinating because you realize how quickly all of this has changed and yet, I mean do you think we've achieved gender equality?


Coontz: No, not at all. For example, when you look at men and women with equal educational credentials, women still earn less than men.


Strainchamps: So what changes would we still need to accomplish to achieve gender equality and do you think it's going to take another 50 years?


Coontz: It's hard to tell because there's so many different kinds of interactions going on. I think the main changes we need to make are institutional. You know, America has the highest work hours for professionals in the world. On the other hand, we have such a gap between what's a livable wage and what most poorly educated workers can earn that often they have to work 2 jobs, so the work family tensions in this country are very extreme. Our childcare investment is minuscule, I'd say that it was like Neanderthal, except it turns out that Neanderthals took better care of their dependents than Americans do.


Strainchamps: So what kinds of pressures have the forces you've been describing placed on the old fashioned nuclear family. Is that still the defining social unit?


Coontz: Well, yes. We no longer have extended families. There's some good things and some bad things going on. On the one hand, domestic violence rates have been halved. Self-reported sexual victimization has fallen by 70% for young women. We see that child abuse has decreased. So right now there are two countervailing forces that are going on in American family life. One is this incredibly wonderful increase in our demands for equality and fairness and respecting the individuality of all family members. But at the same time, in our social and economic life we are going in an equally strong direction toward increasing inequality, privatization with all the results of insecurity, failure and lack of trust that that sort of thing breeds. These are all bad for building the kind of community support systems and trust levels in which families can most thrive.


Strainchamps: What about marriage? I mean, right now people are marrying less and later. Do you think marriage as an institution is going to die out eventually? I mean, do you foresee a time when we'll look back and think of it as an artifact of an earlier time?


Coontz: No, I don't think that marriage is going to die out, but I do think that there is a very important change going on. That marriage as an institution that everybody has to join that organizes your life, that has, you know clear cut rules, that notion of marriage is on the decline. At the same time, our expectations of marriage as a relationship are on the rise. The marriage rates for more educated people are not going down dramatically and we find that the divorce rate for educated economically secure people is going down too. But the same things that have made marriage more of a partnership have made it also in some ways more risky for low income individuals who are under pressure. And we're finding that the same sort of mixture of social and economic and cultural change that has strengthened marriages for some sections of the population has made it increasingly difficult for low income people to enter or sustain stable relationships, whether marriage or cohabitation.


Strainchamps: So what I hear you saying is that we're looking at an increasingly bifurcated American social life in which marriage and stable relationships are for the upper middle class and I don't know what the people at the bottom end get.


Coontz: Well, yes and what I think though that we are seeing and what I think is troubling for lower income Americans is that they really are rightly cautious of rushing into marriage. We know that a woman who gets married, has a baby and stays married is clearly better off, but she often sacrifices her own earnings potential to the fact that if she divorces, she may be worse off. So, we're having this pressure though because at the same time, low income people move into relationships, cohabiting relationships much more rapidly than high income. That is partly a result of economic need and unfortunately those relationships are less likely to be stable because they haven't had the time to put into it that a modern cohabiting relationship really requires.


Strainchamps: So, Stephanie you're a historian, I'm curious. Looking back to look forward, what kind of impact might the biggest change agents, you know like global warming or the internet have on our social and family lives and how much do we know about how people react to big upheavals like that?


Coontz: Well, I have to say that I think global warming is a real game changer. I really don't think there is a good historical precedent for such a massive and global challenge to the way we live. The internet, again doesn't it depend on how we use it?


Strainchamps: What kind of effect on families do challenges like this have? I mean, populations, human population has gone through countless huge upheavals. What kind of larger social impact do upheavals like these have?


Coontz: Well again it depends how we react to them. I mean, everybody knows the many examples of how people respond to emergencies, floods, a tsunami, there's an outpouring of wanting to help other people. But if that takes place over time with a long developing crisis where that human desire to help is not channeled, then it seems that it does lead to the kind of me first, scared of what's going to happen, take care of my own family activity that is bad for society and in the long run really does not create good family relationships and values.


Strainchamps: Well Stephanie, it sounds like I know historians don't like to predict, but it sounds like one thing we can’t predict for sure is that we've got a bunch of choices to make.


Coontz: Yes, hard choices that we'd better make soon.


Fleming: Stephanie Coontz teaches History and Family Studies at Evergreen College. You can find links to some of her recent New York Times articles through our website

Comments for this interview

Question (College Student , 02/21/2017 - 8:01pm)

To Coontz: Do you think that this family form is viable in the long-term future?

Referring to "The Radical Idea of Marrying for Love" (pages 153-161)