The modern family also commonly known as the nuclear family has had radical alterations to its structure, these have been caused by the various changes in the society such as: cultural diversity, more divorce and re-marriage, there is more cohabitation between couples and more births outside marriages. Also there are same sex marriages, and in the cases of female marriages children are often involved.
Family unit is based within a household. In the contemporary U.K diversity can be seen in the household composition, i.e.: in two parent families, both the parents work, one of the parents work, neither of the parents work or it is reconstituted family.
Approximately 23% of households consist of a nuclear family, e.g.: a married or cohabiting couple with dependant children. 28% of households are single, with half over and half under the pensionable age, 28% were couple without children, 7% were single parents with children (out of which 90% of the families were female headed). 3% of the households had non-dependant children, 3% had two or more unrelated adults and only 1% were multi-family households. On the other hand, this data isn’t too reliable as the cyclical nature of family life means that many children may still have children, i.e.: all non-dependants children now were once dependents. Also, some single individuals shown in the data were once in nuclear families with children, which ended through either divorce or death, and the children had become dependant therefore moving away from home.
The diversity of family and household types is contributed by the diversity in ethnic minority cultures. Roger Ballard published a book in 1982 titled ‘South Asian Families’, in which he studied Punjabi, Gujrati and Bangali families in England. His study found that the families were extended and highly patriarchal where all the family contributed to the domestic and wage earning tasks although it was clear that men and women’s duties were greatly differentiated.
However, improvement was being made as the families were becoming less patriarchal i.e.: more women were going out to work and the extended families were being split into smaller family units. Also, he observed that some British Born Asians were rejecting their traditional authority structures. Asian children existed in two cultures: at home into traditional culture via primary socialisation and at school and work into the wider social culture via secondary socialisation. Ballard thinks that the balance of these influences may depend on one major factor i.e.: the Asian density in a particular area.
Ghazal Bhatti supported this study of Ballard’s in her book ‘Asian children at home and at school’ (1999). She studied a sample of 50 Asian children from Southern England, 44 were Muslim with Pakistani or Bangladeshi family backgrounds, four were Hindus and two were Sikhs with Indian origins. Like Ballard she found retained links with their country of origin to maintain and emphasise family loyalty and traditional marriage practices. “Izzat” was also taken very seriously especially with the behaviour of daughters. Bhatti claimed that “motherhood bestowed status upon these women and they saw child raring as their most important role and duty in life.” Whereas fathers saw themselves as heads of their households and the breadwinners.
On the other hand, just like Ballard’s study Bhatti established that some evidence suggested that the younger generation was moving away from some traditional structures. In four of the families the older brother had married white women causing clashes between the parents and the children. Although, she emphasised that these mixed families weren’t the norm and that other generational tensions were minor in comparison with most children happily following the traditional structure of their families.
Joan Barrow also conducted a study on ethnic minority, he studied West Indian families in his book ‘West Indian families: An insider’s perspective’ (1982). He claimed that Caribbean families have three main types of structures: conventional nuclear families, which are mostly to be found amongst religious or economically prosperous, groups and is seen as a sign of respectability. The second was common law families where less off married couples cohabited, and may even be a reconstituted family.
Finally: matriarchal families, which are dominated by the mother or grandmother, with the daily support being provided by the wider female kinship group, and the fathers were transient although they did provide financial support especially for the children. These family types are reproduced in England, with the matriarchal families being the most popular. The mothers in these reproduced families have a high tendency to paid work while the grandmothers have a key role in supporting their daughters and caring for the grandchildren. Barrow suggested that slavery distorted West Indian family relationships as the slave owners often prevented nuclear families and settled relationships forming amongst slaves, which lead to the traditional matriarchal family life.
Berthoud and Beishon published a book in 1997 called ‘Policy studies Institute’ in which they studied Caribbean families and found that “the most striking characteristic is a low emphasis on long term partnerships especially on formal marriage”. British Caribbean families had high divorce rates and had more children outside the wedlock than any other group. Although there being a high number of single mothers, they were more likely than other groups to have paid employment. Despite this over half the Caribbean families with children were either married or cohabited in long-term relationships.
They also studied South Asian families in the same book. Berthoud and Beishon said that South Asians were “most likely to marry and marry younger than their white equivalents. Few of them lived as married and separation and divorce were relatively rare.” Almost all Asian women were married, and many with children lived in the same house as their husband’s parents. Like Bhatti and Ballard, Berthoud and Beishon also saw some evidence of changes within the South Asian families i.e.: divorces, single parents and a fall in the number of children born to each family. They also found that young people today expect more say in their choice of partners than their parents did.
Berthoud and Beishon concluded that although immigrants and their descendants have adapted their family life to fit British circumstances, but they have not fundamentally altered their traditional family relationships and are also maintaining distinct features of their cultures.
Mary Chamberlain studied the importance of kinship in the U.K and the Caribbean in her book ‘ Brothers, Sisters, Uncles and Aunts’ (2002). She found that older siblings had a great responsibility in bringing up their younger siblings and cousins. Like Barrow she found that geographical distances made it difficult for the relatives to play the same role in childcare as they would in the Caribbean. Nevertheless many families in the U.K chose to live close by their kin to provide support to a greater extent than is typical of white British families.
Essex University conducted a study in 2000 in which they found that 39% of the British born Caribbean adults were married compared to 60% of Whites. Caribbean’s were more likely than other groups to intermarry. The study also found that Pakistani and Bangladeshi’s are more likely to live in nuclear families. 30%of Asians including Sikhs and East African Asians lived in extended families. It showed that marriage is highly valued with less divorce although there maybe more empty shell marriages. There is little intermarriage with other religions and cultures in Asians. Also they have more children at a younger age and have a strong sense of duty and obligation to extended family.
These ethnic cultures add to the diversity of family types found in modern Britain.
Over the past few decades’ marriage has been becoming less popular. The marriage trend began as being unpopular, in 1951 15%of the women never married but by 1985 this number had decreased to only 5% of women not marrying. Since then the number of marriages per year has fallen to less than 300,000 P.A. Remarriages had also increased, as by 1990 over 30% of the marriages were remarriages for at least one partner. In support of that, the average age at marriage has also increased significantly in four years: from 25.6 in 1961 for men to 30.8 in 2001. And for women it rose from 23.1 in 1961 to 28.9 in 2003.
Re-marriages becoming more popular led an increase in divorce and cohabitation. Of children born in 1946 6% experienced their parents divorce under the age of 16, this increased to 28% for the children being born in 1999. There have been many changes in the law regarding divorce, before 1857 a private act of parliament was required but since then the grounds of divorce have been extended and the process has been made easier and cheaper. The Family Law Act 1996-1999 was passed to try to make divorce more considered and less confrontational. 1993 was the peak year for divorce with 165,600 divorces occurring that year, after which the divorce rate started to decrease again and 2006 had similar divorce rate to those in 1977.
Sociologist Michael Anderson suggested that the breakdown of marriage in the first 20years is similar now to what it was a hundred years ago, as the death rate was high a hundred years ago which meant that unhappy marriages ended ‘naturally’ (via death) whereas in the contemporary society the death rate is low but the divorce rate is high therefore unhappy marriages are ended via divorce. O. R. MacGregor agreed with Anderson’s theory by saying that divorce courts today have replaced undertakers in the past in ending unhappy marriages.
Even in divorce rates there has been a change in position of women. Kurtz published a study called ‘For richer for poorer: mothers confront divorce’ (1995) in which Kurtz claimed that women have often been trapped in unhappy marriages as they are unable to support themselves financially, but economic independence changes this situation. 75% of women petitioned for divorce in 2000 compared to 37% in 1946. This was because women had fewer children therefore having more freedom and independence, and due to feminist rights women in paid labour lead to financial independence. As well as that women have also got higher expectations of their marriages today than they did in the past.
The increase in the rate of divorce can also be debated by the loss of functions i.e.: fewer functions mean that fewer things within a marriage are holding people together. As the workload isn’t shared in an isolated nuclear family the marriage then becomes based on love, and once the love has gone there maybe little else holding the couple together. This suggests that extended families transforming into isolated nuclear families caused the loss of functions, which portrays that divorce is a consequence of industrialisation. Industrialisation also aided secularisation, today only 2/3 of marriages are civil marriages.
Gidden (1992) wrote a book ‘The transformation of intimacy’ in which he suggested that conjugal relationships go through a number of stages: in the past economic circumstances dictated marriage. By the 18th century romantic love ideology had developed which was based on mutual attraction and the fact that a women saves herself for marriage to her perfect man, but in reality led to oppression of women in the household. Lastly: plastic sexuality, i.e.: women behaving like men in sexual encounters, due to effective contraception. This leads to virginity no longer being prized in women and a new lifestyle, e.g.: confluent love. He concludes that people in the contemporary society are no longer stuck with traditional roles but have the freedom to choose and shape how they live, hence explaining divorce and diversity.
On the other hand, it is arguable that Gidden underestimates the effects of class, gender and ethnicity as not all individuals have a similar range of options and choices.
Childbirth outside wedlock has also been a major factor in the family changing; in 1961 6% of all love births were to unmarried women, this figure had increased to 40% by 2004. Although, in 2004 4/5 of those unmarried women lived with their partner in stable cohabitation. In 1990 15% of single parents established a new relationship and married or entered stable cohabitation. By 2002 the average length of time spent as a single parent was five years.
With the rise of unmarried mothers came a rise in the abortions taking place. In 1967 the abortion act was passed which ruled it ok to have an abortion within 28weeks of conceiving. During 1980s about 170,000 abortions were taking place P.A, this had increased to 199,000 P.A by 2006. However, teenage conceptions had fallen by 10% between 1998- 2004.
Cohabitation between 1979-2001 of 18-49 year old couples increased form 11% to 32%, and in 2002 12% of men and 13% of women aged between 16-65 were cohabiting. A study in 2000 showed that the percentage of the population who believed pre-marital sex was not worth at all rose from 42% in 1984 to 62% in 2000. 67% thought it ok for a couple to live together, 56% thought it a good idea for a couple intending to marry to cohabit first. Nonetheless 59% thought that marriage was still the best option whereas 9% thought there was no point in marriage.
All these factors suggest that the contemporary family is neither breaking down nor is it changing, it is merely adjusting and adapting itself to accommodate the contemporary and diverse society and culture. Hence also becoming diverse and flexible. The basic structure of the ideal family is still maintained, i.e.: parent or parents and children with majority of the time the relation of the parent and child being blood related cohabiting. On the other hand family isn’t an only based on blood relation any more but on affinity and co-residence.