The Way We Weren't

The Star Tribune, Wednesday May 7, 1997
By Cecelia Goodnow
Seattle Post-Intelligencer

The key to regaining a sense of stability during this period of wrenching social, cultural and economic change isn't reclaiming 'traditional family values.' According to historian/author Stephanie Coontz, it's adapting our social institutions.

Stephanie Coontz, who studies the history of American families, was riding to the airport when her taxi driver started railing against the welfare system.

Always eager to take the public pulse, Coontz probed deeper and found the driver had reason to feel resentful. The driver said she had worked for the same company for 29 years -- six days a week, often 13 hours a day. Yet she had no pension and no medical benefits. She worried about her daughter, who was divorced and struggling.

Someone, it seemed, had stolen the American Dream.

Behind the angry rhetoric, Coontz found a beleaguered woman trying to make sense of an intensely stressful and competitive era of social change.

Multiply her by 263 million, and you have an American society desperate for quick fixes and, Coontz believes, easy prey for family-values hucksters with quack social remedies.

If only people respected marriage...
If only mom stayed home with the kids...
If only people believed in an honest day's work...
If only people took responsibility...If only it were that easy.

A dose of reality

Coontz, a historian at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., hopes to inject fact and perspective into a national debate often characterized by hype and emotion.

In her new book, "The Way We Really Are: Coming to Terms With America's Changing Families" (Basic Books, 238 pages, $23), Coontz frames the issues of divorce, welfare, crime and working couples in terms of historical analysis, new sociological research and interviews with families of all types.

Her conclusion: We're living through a period of social, cultural and economic change every bit as wrenching as the Industrial Revolution of the early 19th century.

But Coontz says there's no going back. Instead of trying to force people to reclaim "traditional" family values, we must adapt our social institutions to fit the changing times. The new pro-family culture might include, say, flex time at work, paid leaves for caregivers and clearer roles and expectations around divorce and step-parenting.

Society will have to work out the details, but Coontz says the sooner we get on with the process, the sooner we can regain a sense of stability.

"If I told you what a family-friendly society would look like, it would be no more accurate than my telling you what I wanted to be when I was 7," she said. "I'm a product of all the old patterns, too. I'd like to just get people to ask the right questions."

Moralizing and one-size -fits- all solutions have no place in complex family issues, such as divorce, she said.

What 'good old days'?

Coontz achieved national recognition rive years ago with her book "The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap," which debunked comfortable notions about life in the "good old days" of the 1950s. The book went to press just as Dan Quayle was taking aim at TV's Murphy Brown for having a sitcom baby out of wedlock.

For the next four months, as the public clashed over family values, Coontz averaged three radio talk shows a day and several TV appearances a month. As new issues came up -from no-fault divorce to concerns over absent fathers -- Coontz testified before Congress and appeared on "Oprah," "Crossfire" and other national shows.

Her academic insights struck a chord with people, who corralled her at PTA meetings, sent her e-mail and wrote heartfelt letters about their concerns for the future. Now that we know how, we never were, people asked, what's next?

Adapt, instead of trying to reclaim traditional values

Again, history provides some clues.

"You have to took at: Where have families come from, how have they actually behaved in the past?" Coontz said. "What changes seem really, really deep and won't go away?

"You can't come up with either social policies to help families, or individual help, unless you understand these broader social forces."

Coontz said learning history can be as useful in sorting out family issues as undergoing counseling -- and a lot more enlightening than political platitudes.

"When I listen to the political discourse in this country, I get discouraged," she said, "because I think it's at a very low level. But I have been so impressed with the hunger that I see -- at the grass-roots level -- to be treated like adults. People are very capable of handling and understanding these complex issues."

Economic stress

While politicians describe family styles solely in terms of individual morality, Coontz says personal decisions are shaped by broader cultural and economic realities.

Divorce, for instance, is twice as likely among parents living in poverty, and divorce rates climb among affluent couples who experience job loss. One researcher -calculates that each 1 percent rise in unemployment results in 10,000 more divorces.

Likewise, Coontz notes, people who are laid off are almost six times more likely to engage in violent behavior than people with jobs, regardles's of whether they had a prior history of, say, psychiatric disorder or alcohol abuse.

The same pattern showed up in a 1989 study of 350 white families in rural Iowa. Researchers found a link between declining income, unstable work or family debt and significantly higher levels of aggression in middleschool children two years later.
But the connection between cultural and personal stresses isn't always obvious, even to those involved.

Coontz writes of two therapists who were working with a family wracked by hostility, with constant battles between father and son. Until the therapists pointed it out, the family didn't make the connection between their personal rage and the fact that the father -- along with hundreds of co-workers -- had been fired from his job without notice.

To expand the picture even further, Coontz says our own era is but one of many historic periods of upheaval. We mourn the decline of the mate breadwinner; early 19th-century Americans mourned the decline of the farm economy that gave rise to the male breadwinner.

Consider the parallels between then and now.

By 1830, as the factory age. took hold, alcoholism rose to historic highs. Gangs sprang up in poverty-stricken sections of cities, with frequent bloody clashes between the Bowery Boys and the Dead Rabbits of New York. Anxious citizens sought comfort in religious revivals and scapegoated Roman Catholics, Masons, bankers and foreigners. There were 16 urban riots in 1834, and 37 in 1835.

Making room for Daddy

As society changed, so did family life. Coontz says leisurely family dinners and holiday get togethers developed amid concerns that men's outside work was making them strangers to the family -- and to soothe men's anxiety that their domestic authority was being undercut by their absence.

That kind of puts things in perspective. Not only is our current angst predictable, it's proceeding right on schedule, according to research on the stages of cultural and social transformation.

We've already passed stage one -- a rise in individual and family stress, as the old ways are toppled without new customs and expectations to replace them. In this stage, most people don't realize they're facing irreversible social change, so they tend to think "if we just tried harder, we could get back to the way things used to be."

Stage two, where we are today, is marked by public debate and cultural struggle. Tired of feeling inadequate for failing to preserve the old ways, people conclude that someone else has been undoing their efforts. Scapegoating flourishes.

Only later, when people begin to understand why change is occurring and what parts are irreversible, do they begin to adapt to new realities. At that point, society stabilizes.

None of this is easy.

"As a historian, I have tremendous confidence in people's ability to solve problems," Coontz said. "But as a historian, I know there's a lot of resistance to rethinking institutions."

Yet the movement must be forward, not backward. "There's no way to go back," Coontz said. "This is where both the liberals and the conservatives are refusing to look reality square in the eye."

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