The "typical" family unit in 1950s, where a husband goes off to work while the wife is the homemaker, was favored as the most efficient family structure. Now, not only have the times changed, but the family norm has changed as well. A new study suggests that there is no such thing as a typical family anymore. Instead, the new norm is a diverse family structure.
"There hasn't been the collapse of one dominant family structure and the rise of another. It's really a fanning out into all kinds of family structures," says study author Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland. "Different is the new normal."
Published Thursday, Cohen's report, The Family: Diversity, Inequality, and Social Change, cited three main reasons why the typical nuclear family became extinct over the past 50 years. In 1960, 66 percent of households were run by married couples as opposed to only 45 percent in 2010. Divorce is one of the main reasons why the nuclear family cannot be the norm today. According to the American Psychological Association, about 40 to 50 percent of marriages end up in divorce in the U.S. "The big story, really, is the decline of marriage," Cohen says. "That's what's really changed."
"Traditional" family structures can no longer exist because more women have entered the workforce since the '50s. Women were traditionally expected to take care of the children and the house and have dinner ready when their bread-winning husband returned home from work. Today, women attend college and enter the workforce and can independently take care of themselves and their families. In 2010, 37 percent of women received a bachelor's degree or more compared to 35 percent of men. Many families also need dual-incomes in order to provide for their children.
The definition of family has changed to include same sex couples, single parents, remarried couples and those who co-habitate, making it impossible to define the typical family. The report found that in the 1950s, 65 percent of all children under 15 where raised in traditional, nuclear families. Today, only 22 percent are.
"In 1960 you would have had an 80 percent chance that two children, selected at random, would share the same situation. By 2012, that chance had fallen to just a little more than 50-50," says Cohen. "It is really impossible to point to a 'typical' family."
The study found that 23 percent of children are raised by a single mother, whereas three percent live with a single father. Seven percent of children live with a parent who lives with an unmarried partner, a family situation that would not be recognized 50 years ago.
The changing economy and the independence of women, including higher education and job opportunities, have helped shift family life. But divorce is the top reason why nuclear families are extinct. But divorce doesn't have to be a negative word. "And truthfully, we don't know what the 'right' level of marriage is for people to be happy," Cohen says. "Likewise with divorce. Everyone acts like divorce is bad news."
Even if many marriages don't last, that does not mean families cannot be happy. With all the different forms of family units, no model is the 'right' one.