The Family in Upheaval

The recent "traditional" type was revolutionary 150 years ago. Equally profound changes are in the offing.

Philadelphia Inquirer, June 19, 2005. By Stephanie Coontz.

Everyone knows that the intensification of work in the global economy and the erosion of the male-breadwinner family have created a crisis for parents organizing child care and couples trying to juggle work and married life. But what most people don't realize is that the male-breadwinner family was invented only 150 years ago, to solve an earlier crisis of work, marriage and family life. The current crisis is as broad as its predecessor, and its ultimate resolution no more predictable now than the future was understandable in the mid-19th century.

For thousands of years, the male-breadwinner family was unknown. Wives and children were as central in earning the family's subsistence as husbands. Women not only brought home half the bacon; they often raised and butchered the pig. Few parents sent their children to school. Instead, they counted on their children to work at an early age to provide a cushion for the parents' old age, and in return the children eventually inherited their father's farm or occupation.

Marriage was not a personal relationship based primarily on love, but a way of raising capital, merging businesses, and mobilizing a family labor force And with near-absolute male authority in marriage upheld by law and custom, fathers, not mothers, were responsible for children's moral development.

In the 19th century, however, the spread of wage labor and a market economy revolutionized the organization of work, production of wealth, distribution of resources, and enforcement of male dominance. Young men lost their traditional routes to self-employment and went out of the home to earn wages. Fathers no longer exercised personal, on-the-spot control over a household of workers. Contemporaries bemoaned the breakdown of traditional family unity and feared a total breakdown of the social order.

To solve this crisis, middle-class Americans pioneered a pair of new ways to organize family life. Their first innovation was the male-breadwinner marriage. Men took on the lion's share of supplying familial needs, redefining themselves as family providers rather than household bosses. As men followed work out of the home, wives took over domestic tasks formerly shared with husbands or delegated to older children and servants, such as child-rearing, household production, shopping, and tending to kin and social networks.

The second was the invention of childhood as a protected sphere of life, supervised by mothers. Children gradually stopped contributing to family finances and spent more of their lives in a nuclear-family household. Women took on new responsibility for monitoring children's behavior until they left home for work or marriage. Motherly love replaced fatherly force as the main way of socializing children.

But the male-breadwinner family remained out of reach for most Americans - the wages of a laborer were too small, and insecure, to fully replace the previous model. Thousands of workers, some as young as 10 or 11, were killed or maimed each year in the new mills and factories. Others were fired when their strength began to fail. Widows, orphans and elderly men were often left destitute.

Stabilizing the male-breadwinner family and extending its privileges to America's workers became the great social struggle of several generations. It required making factories safer, building unions so workers could not be fired as soon as they started to age, providing affordable houses for young families, and expanding higher education to increase male occupational mobility.

Politicians and employers resisted, arguing that this was an individual problem and that if men didn't like the way their jobs were structured they should just quit. But workers and social reformers fought and won these demands during the first decades of the 20th century. Government and employers reformed the hours and safety practices of factories and reorganized social-welfare policies, tax codes, and home financing to encourage male-breadwinner marriages.

Ever since, our society has organized work and school schedules, business plans, health and welfare systems, the expectations of future workers and customers - and even our personal emotions - around this historically rare family type, where husbands support women and children, while wives take care of daily life and the socialization of youth.

But the stability and effectiveness of this kind of family depended on several conditions that have now lost their force.

First, this family system rested on upward mobility for male breadwinners, which was achieved from the 1880s to the 1950s by men moving from farming to manufacturing and from rural to urban occupations, and from the 1950s to the early 1970s through the expansion of higher education. Second, this family system was based on women's dependence on marriage, strengthened by their lack of access to living-wage jobs. Finally, this system expected individuals to marry young, then spend the majority of their lives married and the majority of their marriages raising children.

None of these conditions applies any more. Upward mobility based on traditional male jobs, such as in unionized manufacturing, is a thing of the past. Real wages have fallen for unskilled workers and those without a college degree. Even in the middle class, soaring housing and college-tuition expenses have made it harder for one-income families to prepare their children for middle-class careers. For most families, it is wives' out-of-home income earning that has made the difference between getting ahead and just staying even over the last 20 years.

The same economic and educational changes that have made women's earnings a greater proportion of family finances have made women abler to refuse a shotgun marriage or to leave a marriage they find unsatisfactory - and not depend on a male breadwinner. (Today the poverty rate of single-mother families in which the woman has a college degree and works full-time is 1.2 percent. By contrast, the poverty rate of married mothers who live in male-breadwinner families is 14 percent.)

For most young people, marriage no longer organizes the transition into sexual activity or participation in the workforce. A majority of American adults now spend half their lives outside marriage. Almost half of all children live for part of their childhood in a household that doesn't include their two married parents. And with the aging of the population, the average person, single or married, will spend 18 years having some kind of responsibility for an aging parent - as much time as many parents will spend raising a child Meanwhile, the time that adults spend on the job has increased relentlessly, reducing the time for the volunteering and neighborhood socializing that traditionally built social capital and community trust.

America is experiencing a transformation in the way we organize caregiving, child rearing, family subsistence, and social reproduction, a change every bit as disruptive as was the transition to wage labor and a mass-production economy in the 19th century.

The male-breadwinner family will not reassume dominance, because, like the home-based family labor force of long past, it is not economically viable, and because people's values have changed. Yet, as in the late 1800s, business practices and social policies have failed to adapt to the new realities. Of the world's industrial countries, only the United States and Australia fail to offer paid maternity leave to workers. Only half of all American workers are covered by any leave policy, and where family-leave law does apply, it guarantees only a maximum of 12 weeks of unpaid leave. America's preschool and after-school programs are equally out of step with contemporary family needs.

As in the late 19th century, many politicians and businesses claim that the social-economic changes demanded by the new realities - better parental-leave policies, better child-care and after-school options, health benefits not tied to a person's marital status - are too expensive. Like their predecessors 150 years ago, they say workers must find individual solutions to work-family strain.

But just as the revolution in family work life in the 19th century compelled major changes, so the recent demise of the male-breadwinner model will eventually force a response. Achieving a work environment that is friendly to two-earner marriages and single-parent families is the health and safety issue for the 21st century.
Stephanie Coontz, who teaches family history at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., is author of the recently published Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage. She is the director of research at the Council on Contemporary Families.

Evolving Family and Labor Roles

Family Labor Force

Husband, wife and children work side by side at the family occupation. Children are educated in the family trade and gradually assume responsibilities as parents age. Children are compensated by inheriting the family farm or business.

Male Breadwinner

Men leave the home as the market economy matures and support their families by earning wages. Women manage the household and guide children through a new, nonworking version of childhood.

Postmodern Changes

Men's wages are inadequate; wives work outside the home to maintain the status quo. Concurrently, women can be independent. Fewer people marry young; fewer stay married. Fewer children are raised to adulthood by two birth parents.

The Future

Changes that came with the rise of the Male Breadwinner: workplace safety reforms, job security, tax codes, modern mortgages. Factors in post-Male Breadwinner evolution: parental leave, child care, health benefits.

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