Thought leader for a day: Families in uncertain times

I have contributed to the Canvas8 2016 Expert Outlook report. I am not sure what this is, but it has to do with experts, and the future, and being a thought leader. Thirty-nine experts in 13 areas contributed their thoughts. My area was Home, and my Thought #29 was Uncertain Times.


The Home section is here, the slideshow version is here, and the full report in PDF is here.

The text of my thought came from a very interesting phone conversation I had with editor Jo Allison, who then wrote it up very nicely. Here is the text she produced from our call (I added some links for supplemental reading or factual support). I wasn’t sure where to start, but I was pretty sure any conversation about the future should start with plastics.

Philip N. Cohen is a sociologist and demographer at the University of Maryland. He’s also the author of The Family: Diversity, Inequality and Social Change.

There’s an increase in family plasticity. In the US especially, there’s a big increase in re-marriage, marriage later in life after people already have children, with one or both partners having children from a previous relationship. Cohabitation has been increasing for a few decades, with couples living together after one and both of them have been married or divorced, or have children with somebody else. These things create a dynamic where the rules are unclear and people have to negotiate their own family boundaries and relationships.

We’ve also seen a lot of people having children and getting married later in life. But it’s not just that people do them at later ages, it’s that the ages at which people do these things are spreading out. Everybody used to get married at 22, but now it’s spread out – some people get married at 22, while some get married at 52.

The major life markers – completing education, having children, living together, marrying – as the periods of time get elongated, these things are more interwoven, instead of sequenced rigidly. Where there used to be firm expectations for how you ordered your life in terms of these events, now the order of those things is more flexible. All that plays into the same theme of uncertainty and people feeling like there are no rules to tell them exactly how they should do things.

There’s also uncertainty around family obligations. It used to be that adult children supported their older parents; maybe they inherited the family home, but they were in the support role with their elderly parents. Now, the relationship is more complex than that because there are more young adults who have had trouble establishing themselves, their careers and their families, so they’re still dependent on their parents.

We have more choices and we have more freedom in how we organise and live our family lives. Same-sex marriage is the latest formal recognition of that. But it’s been coming with divorce, with remarriage, adoption. The downside is that we’re more at sea when it comes to making those decisions and people really need to justify their decisions with regards to family life. In the US in the 50s, we basically had universal marriage – over 90% of people were married before 25, so you didn’t have to justify why you were doing what you were doing. Now we do.

That’s why we see so much attention on celebrities’ and leaders’ personal lives – because people want to hold them up and say, ‘I’m like that person’. They need anchor points to reference their own decisions. So people might say, ‘I’m thinking of adoption and look, Angelina Jolie did it, I like her.’ Celebrities give us models to chose from. It’s harder to be a conformist but people need something to define their behaviour, positively or negatively.

Parents are increasingly worried about how their kids are going to do in an unequal world. We saw this with the scandal that came out with Baby Einstein. It had a product that seemed to be a no-brainer; ‘wow this is great for infants, they’re going to turn out to be smart if they watch these little videos’. It turns out there was no science behind it. People were so mad, because they just want to do the right thing. From breastfeeding to limiting screen time, parents are worried about how their kids are going to turn out.

There’s big controversy over the gendering of toys, too. It was interesting that Target said it wasn’t going to have separate aisles for boys and girls. I think that’s very healthy. Children have an inclination to rock the boat, but as soon as it appears that they’re going to be penalised, it can be harsh. So it’s a very positive thing when they have more choices and variety. Particularly for boys. That’s why it’s been harder for men to become secretaries, even as women’s roles have changed. Because men have higher status, the penalties for gender non-conformity are more harsh, especially for adolescent boys.

7 thoughts on “Thought leader for a day: Families in uncertain times

  1. It certainly are uncertain times.
    as a woman, a mother, and caretaker I am always worried. I have no choice but to go out and earn a living, while i am also meant to be the role model mother who guides her children. all at the same time, I am to be competing against everyone else for career progression … it’s a never ending rat race…
    the old model of family structure definitely was more functional, I think.
    But I wouldn’t want to be the one who has to stay home while someone else gets to go and conquer the world (as in men going to work, women becoming the stay home carer of children and the elderly…)
    confusing stuff 🙂


  2. Why are the times “Uncertain”? People have been getting married and having children for some ten thousand years? What happened in the last 40 years to make these times uncertain? If anything, the western world is the richst it has ever been. How is it more uncertain than in the other countries which are poorer? Do you feel some of this may be simply kvetching by rich people.

    Is it possible, all of it due to internal reasons and cannot be externalized to socio-economics? Postponing education completion, marriage, having children, all may be decisions of their minds.

    “The major life markers – completing education, having children, living together, marrying – as the periods of time get elongated, these things are more interwoven, instead of sequenced rigidly”

    Also, the idea of life markers having been sequential for eternity may not have been true. For several thousand years, people had no education; it is unclear whether tribal life has always involved marriage before having children.

    I think the idea of looking at 1940-1960 and reflecting the present day on that mirror is the cause of the perceived uncertainty. People get married and have children in age of uncertainty for a long time, why is the present time so special?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. When complexity (in higher-order needs, for instance) increases, uncertainty also increases. The uncertainty comes both from the de-standardization of the life-course (non-sequential life markers, just think about the revolution in women’s role) but also from the economy and the labor market insecurity in advanced economies. The economic boom of the post-WWII period facilitated the sequentiality in the life-course.
    Today, the postponement of unions, marriage and parenthood are also a consequences of the rising economic and employment insecurity. The recession has added further uncertainty, for instance with a small but non trivial effect on the increase in childlessness in the United States:


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