The Way We Really Are

A chapter by chapter abstract of a book by Stephanie Coontz

This overview and abstract was on a website called "Family" (which is unfortunately no longer on the Internet). The author is unknown to me and is being used here in compliance with Fair Use.

General Abstract

In The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap (Basic Books, 1992; new edition with new introduction, 2000), Stephanie Coontz dispelled many popular myths about the history of the family. Now, in The Way We Really Are: Coming To Terms With America's Changing Families (Basic Books, 1997) she applies her historical and sociological perspective to the debate over today's families. While a consensus has emerged that the family is in some difficulty, Coontz sees it as a simplistic consensus that blames everything on departures from a single model of family that is assumed to be a historical constant. Coontz hopes to replace this with a more realistic view, one that understands how family changes have developed naturally out of fundamental historical changes, but also how they have been made more difficult by economic and political conditions that we can modify if we want to.

Economic trends and conditions have a central place in Coontz's analysis. The male-provider/female-homemaker pattern that traditionalists consider sacred was actually an adaptation to the early industrial economy. Families began to need a wage-earner outside the home, but they also needed a home worker to convert purchased goods such as cloth into usable items such as clothes. But the twentieth-century mass production/consumption economy has come to need women more for non-manual jobs and supplementary family incomes than for household labor. An economic transition in the role of children--from child laborer to student and consumer--at first secured the father's role as sole provider, but in the long run made it harder for parents to support and raise children without outside help. The suburban family of the 1950s seemed relatively stable not because it represented a longstanding tradition, but because it benefited from a particularly favorable economic and political climate, an economy recovered from the Depression and a government aiding workers and their families in a wide variety of ways. In contrast, recent family change has come at a time of economic troubles and short-sighted policy responses. Coontz is especially concerned about the breakdown of the "postwar social compact between government, corporations, and workers." Corporations have responded to economic challenges by reducing wages, benefits and job security for workers; and government has gone along by cutting corporate taxes and investments in education, training, housing and support for families.

Coontz attributes family problems to a combination of structural changes and aggravating social conditions. The high divorce rate, for example, reflects the fact that marriage is less economically essential and more voluntary than it used to be, but it is aggravated by the economic struggles of single parents and children in a difficult economy. Unwed motherhood reflects the new freedoms of women, but also the reluctance of young men to marry, considering that they face a longer period of "economic adolescence" in which they don't earn enough to support families. Coontz believes that we cannot alleviate family problems until we stop attributing those problems solely to the behavior of family members themselves. Telling everyone to marry and stay married is not enough, since two-thirds of poor children would still be poor even if all children lived with both biological parents. We should be helping rather than condemning families; for example we should help define the unique role of stepparents rather than wishing them out of existence. We should be building a better support system for all types of families, through family-friendly policies in work, government and education.


The history of the family reveals a great variety of family types, no one of which could ever meet everyone's needs. Once people accept the fact that there has never been a golden age of the family, they want to know whether history and sociology offer any positive lessons helpful to today's families. This book answers that question in the affirmative.

The 1992 election campaign featured a debate over whether America's problems could be attributed to the shaky economy or the deteriorating family. Although at the time most voters bought the Clinton position ("It's the economy, stupid"), a consensus soon developed that family change was a matter of serious concern. But it was an oversimplified consensus that blamed everything on departures from a single model of the family. "We cannot help contemporary families if we accept a one-dimensional analysis of where their problems originate, insist there is only one blueprint for how all families should look and act, or offer feel-good homilies about cleanliness, chastity, and charity in place of concrete reforms to relieve the stresses on working parents and offer positive alternatives to youth" (p. 7). In contrast to the views of politicians and think-tanks, there is an "on-the-ground" consensus that we need to consider the real needs of today's families in all their variety.

Chapter 1. Getting Past the Sound Bites: How History and Sociology Can Help Today's Families

A historical perspective is useful in order to see our personal problems in larger context, revealing how much they stem from the social conditions and trends affecting many families. The resulting insights give us (in the words of the serenity prayer) the courage to change what can be changed, the patience to accept what can't be changed, and the wisdom to know the difference. We can develop the "social intelligence" to be "angry, afraid, or optimistic about the right trends and relevant social forces, to the right degree and for the right reason" (p. 26).

For example, relationships between parents and teenagers have become more troubled because society is failing to prepare young people for the demands of today's adulthood. Young people suffer from "rolelessness" as a result of the historical lengthening of adolescence, with puberty coming earlier and full adulthood coming later. The problem is most acute for non-college-bound youth, who are forced to attend high schools that prepare them inadequately for stable employment. When young people do get jobs, they are dead-end kids' jobs without opportunities for adult companionship and mentoring. While the transition to adult productivity has become more difficult, the transition to high levels of consumption occurs earlier, resulting in a youth culture largely created by adult marketers for profit. The public spaces where teens used to be able to hang out have been "adultified", often being replaced by shopping malls. Such a world puts parents in a no-win situation, vulnerable to losing their children whether they try to keep them locked up or allow them free rein.

Conflicts between women and men also have structural sources. The public power and responsibility of men enables them to avoid responsibilities in the home, but the dependency of women on marriage encourages them to set high standards of housework and marital interaction that men don't live up to. Gender inequality entails costs for men as well as women, since men have to pay a price in competitive pressure and lost intimacy for their achievements in male hierarchies. Suggestions for improving communication between Martian men and Venusian women (John Gray) don't address the structural conditions that continually reproduce the same problems.

Political and media debates overlook such complexities and reduce family problems to sound bites. Misleading statistics and out-of-context "factoids" abound, so that surface events are exaggerated and real trends missed. Problems that are blamed on the family often have multiple causes; for example, young people are not fighting more, but the availability of weapons is making their fights more lethal. Reporting is often "manic-depressive," announcing the death of marriage one day and its miraculous resurrection the next. (In reality, fewer people remain single than in the last century, but they marry later and divorce more. Marriages that end in divorce do so quickly, but other marriages last longer than ever due to increased longevity.) A historical perspective permits a "more balanced assessment of what we have gained and lost," and an awareness of useful historical precedents.

Chapter 2. What We Really Miss About the 1950s

Americans continue to appreciate the 1950s not only for the success of the period's economy (Real wages increased more each year in the fifties than in the entire decade of the 1980s), but for the predictability of its family life and the moral order of its communities. What they are nostalgic for is not primarily the internal structure of the family (gender and age roles), but the "more family-friendly economic and social environment" and the sense of optimism people had about the family's future. Finally, after decades of economic insecurity and the crises of Depression and war, a majority of families were for the first time able to base a comfortable home life on the earnings of a male breadwinner alone.

The 1950s family was more of a short-lived experiment than a continuation of a long tradition. Reversing earlier trends, young women of that era cut short their education, married young, had several children in close succession, and devoted themselves for a time exclusively to the home. Urban families with close ethnic, kinship and neighborhood bonds were replaced by suburban families that put their "emotional and financial eggs in the small basket of the immediate nuclear family." The mothers experienced the double bind of having to establish intense relationships with their sons without impeding their independence and transfer of commitment to their adult families. TV sitcoms and their commercials gave people formulas for family success which connected material consumption and personal happiness.

Many existing social problems could be avoided or ignored. Racial conflict was intense in many places, but many suburbs were exclusively white. The poverty rate was higher than today, but at least it was falling. Teenagers had more babies than they do now, but access to good jobs-even with only a high school education-enabled young men to marry their pregnant girlfriends.

The 1950s were not years of laissez-faire capitalism, but of active government assistance to families. Corporations and the wealthy were taxed at high rates to support high levels of spending on veterans benefits and public works. Government-backed home mortgages financed many of the new family homes, and the minimum wage was set high enough to support a family of three above the poverty level. Large numbers of workers joined unions, received pensions and health benefits, and worked a relatively short work week. Today's politicians are being inconsistent when they advocate a return to the 1950s family while opposing the kinds of social and political supports that helped make it possible.

For all of its good points, family life in the 1950s was hardly ideal. Families weren't as well-off economically as they would become by the end of the 1960s; African-Americans in particular had higher rates of poverty than they do now. Women, minorities, gays and non-conforming groups were discriminated against, and victims of family problems got little attention or social assistance.

In some ways, the decline of the 1950s family grew out of the trends and contradictions of the fifties themselves. The young women who had children in close succession were available for employment once the children were older. The "self-indulgent" consumerism so criticized in recent years was fostered by the affluent suburban lifestyle and its television counterpart. But the main reason for family change was the breakdown of the "postwar social compact between government, corporations, and workers." The affluence and optimism that explains the family behavior of the postwar generation of young people was challenged by America's new economic problems, whose impact was felt at the family level in the form of inflation and lower real earnings. Public policies aggravated these problems by cutting taxes for corporations and the wealthy while cutting spending for services, public works, and investments in human capital. While some economists, notably Easterlin, interpret the problems of baby-boomers as a result of the sheer size and competitive pressures of their generation, the smaller generation that followed them fared even worse. Berlin and Sum describe the four ways families adjusted: later marriage, two-job marriage, fewer children, and debt. This meant that families had to modify the socially valued form of the family in order to try and protect their socially valued lifestyle: the standard of living to which they had become accustomed. Economic pressures turned many changes that could have been positive into more troubling developments; for example, women's employment became more a matter of necessity than of choice.

Chapter 3. Why Working Mothers Are Here to Stay

In the 1950s women's family roles restricted their access to public life, but now people's public roles seem to restrict access to family life. It is wrong to blame this on working mothers alone, since men and women were coproviders for the family for much of history. What we need is not a return of mothers to the home, but changes in the workplace and in the division of labor within the home. Advocates of "family values" recommend traditional gender roles for parents of young children. They insist that fathers be present in families, and even recommend that men receive special status and authority to motivate them to marry. But they also believe that fatherhood entails less actual parenting than motherhood, and that mothers should limit their employment while children are young. This is only an individual solution that is appealing in the absence of wider social change.

Having the man be the sole economic provider is not as traditional as commonly thought. In preindustrial families women and men were economic partners, although men had more legal and religious authority. During the transition to industrial capitalism, families needed both a wage-earner and someone to perform the hard work of converting purchased goods such as cloth into usable items such as clothes, because readily usable consumer goods were far less available than in today's economy. Most families still needed child laborers too. By the twentieth century, the economic demand for women's labor was declining at home but increasing in modern work organizations. But from the 1920s through the 1960s, child labor declined faster than female employment increased, and so for a brief time the family with only a male provider predominated.

Today most children, including most pre-school children, have employed mothers, and the trend is away from mothers interrupting their employment to care for children. Women are unlikely to reverse this trend, since they provide a large share of family income, and their contribution is now the main way that families can be upwardly mobile. Modern life is now organized to make such expensive things as cars and college educations necessities rather than luxuries. In addition, women like the respect, self-esteem, social relationships and family power that come with employment. The preindustrial coprovider model teaches us that parenting can be successfully combined with economic activity, and that fathers can be more involved in parenting than they have been under the industrial sole-provider model.

There is good news and bad news about coprovider families. The good news includes the fact that "men want to reclaim the active parenting role that history tells us they are perfectly capable of playing" (p. 64), and that men as well as women are increasingly willing to make some career sacrifices to do so. In general, maternal employment and day care have not been found to be bad for children; in fact, children of employed mothers average better performance in school. Women usually benefit psychologically from playing multiple roles. But coprovider families do face several problems: finding child care that is affordable and high quality, squeezing family time in after long hours of working and commuting, and getting men to change their roles as much as women have changed theirs, especially in the face of resistance from employers.

The suggestion that women should limit work responsibilities during the childrearing years is not very helpful. Women would have to avoid becoming exactly the kind of workers who are most helpful to their families in the long run: high-level, well-compensated workers with paid vacations and perhaps some flexibility in hours. The childrearing years are also the years in which good careers get established. Couples who revert to traditional roles at that time often suffer a decline in marital satisfaction. Instead, employers should assume that workers of both sexes have family responsibilities and adjust accordingly, with policies such as paid parental leaves, time off to care for sick family members, on-site day care, and flexible hours of work. European countries provide more support for families as a matter of policy. Government should mandate and subsidize such support, considering it an investment in social well-being analogous to investments in economic infrastructure.

Chapter 4. The Future of Marriage

Although most people do not want to reverse the changes in gender roles within marriage, they are concerned about threats to marriage itself, especially divorce and single parenthood. As a result, they may be sympathetic to the efforts of "new consensus" groups to restore marriage as a universal institution. They may not realize that those groups wish to do this by further reducing social support and assistance to any household without an intact marriage.

Marriage remains an important social institution, but it "has lost its former monopoly over the organization of people's major life transitions" (p. 78-9). More people live on their own, cohabit before marriage, change partners, and live alone after the death of a spouse. Marriage is no longer economically essential, since households don't need a full-time domestic worker; this frees women to take jobs and workers to live alone. Since marriage is more voluntary, it makes sense for women to prolong their education and develop careers. When they do marry (and most educated women do), they are then able to leave a bad marriage or cope economically if their husbands leave them. The revolution in reproductive technology helps married couples with fertility problems, but also makes it easier for unmarried people to have children.

Some reformers would like to reverse the trend toward no-fault divorce and make divorce harder to get again. No-fault divorce has hurt economically vulnerable women, but the solution is to improve maintenance provisions for those who made economic sacrifices in order to raise children, not to force couples to stay together. The state shouldn't decide which marriages are "good enough" to perpetuate. Women need the alternative of divorce to protect them against the superior power of husbands. No-fault divorce laws didn't cause the rise in divorce in the first place. We can try to prevent divorce with education and counseling, but this will not restore marriage to its former place in our lives.

The increase in unwed motherhood involves a complex combination of new options for women, new economic problems for both sexes, and continued inequality between the sexes. The sexual freedom of teenage girls is only part of the story, since they are often exploited by older boys. The biggest increases in the birth rate of unmarried women occurred before 1958 and after 1976; the recent period of increase reflects the reluctance of young men with low wage prospects to marry. (In the 1960s and early 70s the rate of unmarried childbearing only appeared to be rising because there were so many young singles in the population and the rate of married childbearing was falling.) Some older economically independent women choose to have babies, but the majority of nonmarital births are unplanned. Charles Murray recommends cutting off child support to unwed mothers, but this would put the burden of consequences solely on the women, while giving men a license for irresponsible sex. Societies with higher wages for women and other family supports do more to mitigate the damages.

Contrary to popular belief, welfare doesn't cause unwed motherhood. The rate fell when welfare benefits were rising and then rose while welfare benefits were falling. The highest rates of unwed motherhood are found in states and countries with low welfare benefits, but high rates of poverty and economic inequality. The new welfare bill won't help. It will cut $55 billion in assistance over six years, limit benefits to a total of five years for any one family, cut food stamp benefits from 80 cents per meal per person to 66 cents, and provide insufficient child care support to compensate for the new work requirements.

Some advocates of marital reinstitutionalization want to "restigmatize" divorce and unwed motherhood, although many admit that not all those who find themselves in unconventional families had bad intentions or values. But stigmatization wouldn't be enough anyway. In the words of Katha Pollitt, "we'd have to bring back the whole nineteenth century: Restore the cult of virginity and the double standard, ban birth control, restrict divorce, kick women out of decent jobs, force unwed pregnant women to put their babies up for adoption on paid of social death, make out-of-wedlock children legal nonpersons. That's not going to happen."

Chapter 5. Putting Divorce in Perspective

We can accept social change without denying that adjusting to it can be difficult. While rescuing some people from bad family situations, divorce creates psychological and economic problems for others.

Children of divorce have higher school dropout rates, as well as higher rates of emotional problems, lawbreaking, and drug or alcohol abuse, but there are a number of reasons not to assume a simple cause-and-effect relationship between divorce and these problems. While studies based on children referred for counseling turn up the most problems, studies based on more representative samples find smaller differences, with only a minority of children in either intact or disrupted families exhibiting serious problems. And many of the problems that are observed are "caused not by divorce alone but by other frequently coexisting yet analytically separate factors" (p. 101). Studies with careful controls find that such factors as mother's education, residential stability, and even eating meals as a family predict child outcomes better than family structure as such. Addressing these factors directly will do more for children than making divorce harder to obtain. (One researcher estimated that eliminating divorce would only increase the high school completion rate by 2%).

Researchers have also found that families where parents stay married despite high levels of conflict are particularly bad for children. The relationship between divorce and harm to children could be spurious, with low quality marriages as the real culprit often leading to both outcomes, but hurting children even in-or especially in-cases where it doesn't produce divorce.

The quality of the post-divorce family environment makes a big difference to children, especially the quality of parenting by the custodial parent and the amount of continuing conflict between ex-spouses. Parents can minimize the damage to children by being aware of these factors and working on them. As often as not, parents manage to act civilly in the aftermath of divorce. Although the involvement of fathers with their children has been low following divorce, it appears to be increasing, and continued parenting helps more than just friendly visiting.

William Goode says that we need to institutionalize both divorce and remarriage, in the sense of defining "clear obligations and rights, supported by law, customs, and social expectations" (p. 107). Stepfamilies are new, more complex family systems that should not pretend to be exclusive nuclear families.

Chapter 6. How Holding on to Tradition Sets Families Back

Many of the family's problems are a result of not changing enough rather than changing too much. For example, the highest rates of violence against women are found in states where women's status has improved the least.

According to Arlene Skolnick, social change first goes through stages of personal distress and public conflict before social institutions can stabilize by adapting to new realities. The transition into the family we now consider traditional involved as much turmoil as today's transition out of that family. The expansion of the wage economy in the early nineteenth century was accompanied by confusion in gender roles, harsher working conditions, urban slums, gangs, ethnic conflict and rioting, and the highest levels of alcohol consumption in American history. The mid-nineteenth century was a period of restabilization, including institutionalization of the private nuclear family with the male breadwinner and the female "angel in the house."

Clinging to the past only makes a transition slower and more painful. People are now adjusting to new family realities in some ways. In particular, men are sharing more family responsibility both in marriage and after divorce. The traditional focus on lifelong marriage encouraged men to think of the family as a "package deal" in which they supported children only because they received the services of a wife. We need a "more inclusive package deal, where obligations to children...are not determined solely by biological relatedness, coresidence, parents' marital status, or notions of exclusive possession..." (p. 118). Children need to be seen as a public good requiring public responsibility; many African and Native American cultures have such a "child-centered social ethic."

Changing values is important, especially changing how we value children, but we must also make changes in the social environment where those values are expected to flourish. That may require establishing new social obligations in areas where we have been accustomed to freedom.

Chapter 7. Looking for Someone to Blame: Families and Economic Change

Many commentators underestimate the economic problems of today's families, focusing instead on general measures of economic improvement such as growth in per capita income. Such aggregate measures are misleading because they are inflated by the number of family members working and the large income gains experienced by the richest segment of the population. But the rising economic tide has not been lifting all the boats. Real wages for nonsupervisory workers have been falling; corporate downsizing has reduced job security; workers who are laid off are typically unable to find new jobs at the same rate of pay; and young workers face a longer period of "economic adolescence" in which their wages are insufficient to support a family.

When people feel that they are working too hard for too small a share of the economic benefits, they understandably look for someone to blame. Among the easiest targets are families on welfare and groups seeking new economic rights, especially women and minorities. The benefits of welfare are commonly exaggerated, since the United States ranks relatively low on aid to the poor and spends three times as much on corporate subsidies and tax breaks. The economic gains of women and minorities have been too small to explain the economic problems of white men. Blaming foreign countries for taking American jobs overlooks the creation of substantial numbers of low-wage jobs in this country, and blaming workers for lacking sufficient job skills overlooks the limits on the number of high-skill jobs being created. What is more important is the "breakdown of America's implicit postwar wage bargain with the working class" (p. 136), in which industry and government worked together to provide more stability and protection for workers. Today's unregulated free enterprise gives employers more freedom to treat their workers badly.

Those commentators who do recognize the economic hardships of families usually blame them on the behavior of the families themselves, especially divorce and unwed motherhood. While it is true that poverty is heavily concentrated in single-parent families, there are important economic reasons why this is so. Low wages make it hard for single parents to get by without a second income, and low wages for women in particular make it hard for the majority of single-parent families that are headed by women. The diminished economic prospects of young men make them reluctant to marry or remain married to the mothers of their children, and make it hard for them to lift the family above the poverty level even if they do. Two-thirds of America's poor children would remain poor even if every child lived with both biological parents.

Chapter 8. How Ignoring Historical and Societal Change Puts Kids at Risk

Historical changes have made it harder for parents to raise children without assistance from society. The decline of child labor changed children from economic assets to economic liabilities and reduced the economic incentives for fathers to have custody of children. This change required government to expand public education and social assistance programs. Recently, however, society has been trying to transfer more of the costs of raising children back to parents, by reducing support for public schools and cutting funds for housing and job training. Robert Reich describes a "secession of the powerful" in which the more affluent segment of society has been shifting resources from public institutions to private services.

The changing economy has created many temporary jobs for young people, but not enough "meaningful participation in work, civic life, and public space" (p. 145). Growing up is especially difficult for poor children. The economic stresses and insecurities of struggling families contribute strongly to children's aggression, depression, lack of motivation, and susceptibility to peer pressure, especially for boys. Poverty is associated with underweight babies, lead poisoning, nutritional deficiencies and erosion of parental control. To make matters worse, poverty has become more concentrated in blighted urban areas and more persistent from year to year.

The most careful research has concluded that economic factors account for more of children's problems than family structure does. For example, poverty is a stronger predictor of child abuse than single parenting. Some researchers claim that family structure emerges as the strongest factor once family income is controlled. But they often control for income simplistically, considering only current income and not the longer-term economic history that has greater bearing on children's welfare. Some European countries have higher proportions of single-parent families but much lower rates of youth crime. In the U.S., children of single parents are overrepresented in the criminal justice system, but that is partly because poor neighborhoods produce both family instability and crime; it is also due to legal bias against children of "broken homes." The single-parent family is not the culprit, but it can be one factor that interacts with economic problems and parental behavior to have a combined effect on children.

What is usually seen as a family crisis is really a larger social crisis that requires a broad societal response. Instead of seeing family weaknesses as the problem, we should be seeing family strengths as part of the solution, since families have shown great resilience and creativity in coping with current social realities.

Chapter 9. Working with What We've Got: The Strengths and Vulnerabilities of Today's Families

Instead of declaring some family structures better than others, we should focus on how well families function. Each type of family has its own particular strengths as well as its own vulnerabilities. Two-earner families have trouble finding time for family relationships, but have the advantages of greater role-sharing and equality. Lesbian couples expose their children to more social ridicule, but score high on parenting skills and produce children just as well-adjusted as other families. Single-parent families have only one parent within the home, but more often involve other adults in mentoring children. The complexity of stepfamilies is especially challenging, but it can also provide children with additional adult models and help them develop flexibility in dealing with roles and relationships.

With regard to parenting, there are some principles that apply to all types of families, such as the value of authoritative--as opposed to either authoritarian or permissive--approaches. Beyond that, different kinds of families have different parenting challenges. Married couples have to adapt but preserve their marriage as children arrive and develop, and they have to collaborate in parenting without excluding the child from the processes of decision-making. Single parents have to stand up to teenagers without the reinforcement provided by a spouse. Stepparents have to define a parenting role that is somewhat secondary to that of the biological parent, even if this contradicts traditional gender roles.

We should stop arguing over which family is best and build a better support system for all families. This would include high-quality and affordable child care, better tax breaks for families with children, family-friendly work policies, job training, child support enforcement, national health insurance, high school programs in child development and community service, and a combination of income support and jobs programs for single mothers.

Children can rise above troubled backgrounds if they have two things: second chances to succeed after they have failed at something once, and interventions from caring people outside the family. Such personal interventions have to be supported with social services and practical help. According to the Economic Policy Institute, it would take $112 billion a year to bring children's health and education up to European standards, but a country whose government spends over a trillion dollars a year can afford it.

We should work to bring families to where they should be, not back to what they used to be. By absolute standards of income, health and education, U.S. children are actually better off than they were in the glorified 1950s, but they are worse off than children in other industrial countries. Instead of emphasizing divisions between "good" and "bad" families, we should "start bringing as many of them as possible into our sphere of social support" (p. 177).