Andrew Cherlin: Changes in the American Family
On the evening of June 2, 2011, in New York City, Andrew Cherlin was inducted as the Ernest Burgess Fellow of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. Paula England, who introduced Professor Cherlin, told the audience: ” If you want the big picture of what is happening to the American family, if you want the assessment to be data-based, and if you want to read only the clearest of prose, then Andy Cherlin is your go-to scholar.” Below is a transcript of Andrew Cherlin’s remarks.
Thank you Paula for that great introduction. Thanks to the members of the Academy for nominating me. I am greatly, greatly honored. To the members of the Academy and to all of our distinguished guests, let me say that I am particularly honored to be an Ernest Burgess Fellow.
In addition to being an early pioneer in urban sociology, Burgess was actually the foremost sociologist of the family in the 1930s and 1940s and 1950s. He is famous in sociology for saying that the American family in the early twentieth century was in the process of changing from an institution, i.e., a family held together by the authority of the father and traditional norms, to what he called a companionship, a family held together by love and cooperation and partnership. The kind of family he was saying was the future of America peaked in the 1950s. The kind of family he was talking about was the breadwinner-homemaker family that in the 1950s was so common and so dominant. But that family we have left behind. That family you can only see on late night reruns of Father Knows Best orLeave It To Beaver. Instead, what we have seen in the last fifty years is the greatest amount of change in family life that has ever occurred in a half-century in modern history.
Now, I have been privileged, and I would use that word guardedly, to live through that change and it became my life scholarship without my really planning it, to study it, deal with the changes, try to determine what was happening, investigate the consequences for children, for parents, for the larger society, and to show how those consequences play out differently for families from various racial and ethnic groups. Now, not many of us yearn for a return to the 1950s families and yet there has been a lot of anxiety and concern about the changes that have occurred since then, especially concerning the well-being of children. Yet, some of these changes from the 1950s are clearly for the better, such as the ability of women to work outside the home so that they do not have to make the choice my mother and others of her generation had to make between marriage and a career. Moreover, my position has been, as Paula mentioned, that the negative consequences of these changes are not catastrophic as some on the right have claimed, nor are they harmless as some on the left have claimed. For example, several collaborators and I showed that a lot of what we think of as the effects of divorce on children actually were visible before the divorce and probably would have happened even had the divorce never occurred. Nevertheless, there were some effects of divorce on children. It does raise the risk that your kid will have behavior problems in school, and if it was our kid, few of us would want to raise that risk.
In other words, the kinds of problems I study are serious, they are worthy of attention, but they are not disastrous, they are not calamitous, and that is just the kind of problem that American social and political debates seem to have no language for. Too often, especially in the field of social issues, these debates play out in a sequence where one set of authors puts out a position at one extreme, it is either a disaster or it is no problem at all, the other extreme counters, and the debates lurch back and forth, not only in scholarly journals but in the media, as if there were no middle. If I have a wish for future scientific and scholarly debates and public debates about social issues such as the family, it would be that we avoid these extremes and engage in a more productive dialogue about what actually may be going on.
Recently, over the last couple of years I have been looking at a situation that tends to be overlooked in our understandable concern about the extremes of the income distribution, and this is the situation of people with a moderate amount of education. The high-school educated Americans we used to call blue-collar workers back when they wore that iconic chambray shirt to the factory. As we know, over the past several decades, globalization and automation have reduced the demand for the kinds of semi-skilled jobs that somebody with a high school degree could get. The people we used to call blue-collar workers are still trying to live the American dream. When you talk to them you realize they still would like a successful marriage and a comfortable lifestyle, but the foundation of their world is cracking as the work they do disappears into circuit boards and overseas assembly lines. As a result, the moderately educated young adults, and there are many of them, are increasing entering cohabiting unions rather than marrying because they do not feel they are financially secure enough to make a marriage work. And yet they are increasingly having children in these unions. In fact, demographers think that virtually all of the increase in the so-called out of wedlock childbearing over the last decade or two is not the result of young teenagers living with their moms, having kids, but rather reflects cohabiting couples in their twenties, high-school educated, majority white, who are living together and having kids outside of marriage. The government does not distinguish between a mother who is living alone with her child and a mother who is cohabiting with a man she is not married to. They are both unmarried in government statistics. What we have seen then is an emergence of a new pattern of family life among what we used to call the working class. A pattern of family life that is full of tenuous relationships, informal relationships, relationships that are even more fragile than American marriage which, as Paula noted, has the highest divorce rate in the world. Because so many of these parents are partnered when they give birth, because so many end their partnerships quickly, because so many re-partnered, the children of these moderately educated Americans see more parents and parents’ partners coming in and out of their households then do children in any other social group. They see a bewildering pattern of instability which I think may itself be troubling. In other words, I think that the sheer amount of instability that kids go through, not necessarily who is in their home at one time, may be a difficult problem for many American kids.
More generally what we sociologists of the family have seen recently is a growing and very troubling gap between the family patterns of college-educated young adults and the non-college-educated. The college-educated, who if there are winners in our global economy, those are the winners, are really living what we might call more traditional family lives these days. They still marry. Virtually all of them wait until after marriage to have children. Their divorce rates have been dropping. The divorce rates of college graduates are probably now back to what they were in 1970. They seem to be able to use two incomes, to pool those incomes, to make a marriage work, and to see their way clear to the kind of traditional American marriage, then childbearing path that we tend to have held in high esteem. But the non-college-educated, the ones who cannot find the jobs that are now overseas or in your iPhone, they marry less, they have more children in brittle cohabiting unions that are not likely to last, and they divorce more than they used to. So there is a very big gap now between the college-educated middle class and the non-college-educated, perhaps call them working class, moderately educated Americans in their family lives and in other ways, too. It seems to be the case that in many ways now this moderately educated group is drifting away from the college-educated middle class in ways that could be very problematic. You wonder if a group that is becoming more rootless, less attached to institutions, for example, is more susceptible to political arguments based on anger and fear.
So as we in the social science community continue to examine the consequences of globalization and automation or, as some labor economists prefer to call it, the increasing skill bias of returns in the labor market, I would urge us to pay attention to the consequences for family life and for American children of the great transformations of the American and, indeed, the world economy. Thank you very much.
Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are solely the opinions of the individuals and not those of the Academy.