Family diversity – What are the trends and changes to family structure?



  • There is much greater organizational diversity in families than is usually claimed, or preferred by governments, and this is further increased by differing ethnic, regional and social class patterns. 

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  • The number of one parent families with dependent children in the UK tripled from 2% of households in 1961 to 7% in 2003.  Consequently there are approximately 1.75 million lone parent families in Britain making up about 25% of all families.  It is estimated that a third to a half of children will spend some time in a one-parent family. 90% of single parent families are female-headed.
    • 60% of these are ex-married (divorced, separated or widowed).
    • The fastest growing group of single parents is made up of those who have never married. Most of these are ex-cohabitees and are probably best described as ‘separated’. A small proportion are women who have decided to have children alone perhaps using sperm donors.
  • Contrary to popular opinion, most single mothers are not teenagers - they make up just 3% of lone parents. The average age of a lone parent is actually 34.
  • The social and economic situation of many one-parent families is very disadvantageous.  This is partly a consequence of the fact that a great majority of single parents are women and working class.  Only one child in 18 from Social Class 1 compared with one child in 7 from Social Class V lives in a one-parent family.
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  • Single-person households are becoming more common. According to government statistics, the proportion of one person households rose from 18 % in 1971 to 29 % in 2005. 1 in 3 households are now single person households. 
  • Older people who have been bereaved or who live alone. One reason for the increase in this group is due to an ageing of the population.
  • Young single people in their twenties and thirties who have yet to marry. Berthoud (2000) has used data from the General Household Survey to show that the proportion of people in their twenties who lived alone increased from 3 per cent in 1973 to 9 per cent in 1996. This may be dues inpart to the trend towards later marriage Bernardes (1997) believes there are strong social pressures discouraging people from remaining single because society portrays marriage as the ideal state. The increasing frequency of single-person households among those below retirement age does suggest there is greater acceptance of a single status as an alternative to marriage or cohabitation.
  • Divorcees (mostly men) in their forties and fifties. Most of these people go on to marry again.
  • Peter Stein - being single often helped their career opportunities, because they could concentrate wholeheartedly on work; it made available a wider variety of sexual experiences, and promoted overall freedom and autonomy.
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  • Richard Berthoud argues that the families of Caribbeans, whites and South Asians can be placed on a continuum, with those characterised by ‘old fashioned values’ (OFV) on one end and those characterised by ‘modern individualism’ (MI) on the other. He argues that family relationships are moving from OFV to MI.
    • Caribbean relationships are characterised by a low rate of marriage. Research carried out at Essex University in 2000 indicates that only 39% of British-born African-Caribbean adults under the age of 60 are in a formal marriage compared with 60% of white adults.
    • They are less likely to live with a partner. If they have a partner, they are less likely to marry them. If married, they are more likely to separate/divorce. This group is more likely than any other group to inter-marry.  The number of mixed-race partnerships means that very few African-Caribbean men and women are married to each other.  Amongst British-born Caribbeans, half of men with a partner live with a white woman and one third of women live with a white man. Only one quarter of Caribbean children live with two black parents.
    • Berthoud argues that this trend may lead either to the decline, or increasing isolation, of blackness as an independent identity. In the context of multiculturalism/valuing the diversity of communities
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  • WHITES -
    • In 1973 almost all white young people were single and living with their parents until aged 16. The majority were married and had children by the time they were 35. Therefore the route from their family of origin to the family of procreation was short. Very few in their 20’s were in the ‘intermediate’ position – no longer with parents and not yet with their husband/wife and children.
    • By 1996, the majority of young adults were still staying at home just as long but were getting married and having children much later, if at all. Alternative, ‘intermediate’ positions were now available: single but living away from parents, one-parent families, cohabiting, married without children. Berthoud notes that an increasing proportion of women will remain in one of the alternative positions without ever moving to destinations that would once have been their primary expectation.
    • Two-thirds of Indian women and just over half of African Asian women are married by 25 years of age compared to three-quarters of Pakistani and Bangladeshi women. There is a low divorce rate amongst these groups. This group is more likely to intra-marry.
    • Pakistani and Bangladeshi women mainly look after the home and family full-time but this trend is less common if they have good educational qualifications. Traditionally they have high fertility rates from their teens to 40’s but recently, there has been a reduction in the number of children being born from these communities.
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    • Weeks et al, “during the past generation the possibilities of living an openly lesbian and gay life have been transformed.” The 2005 Civil partnership allowing same sex partners to marry signifies official sanction of same sex persons heading families.  In 2007 Catholic adoption agencies were denied Government funding after they refused to work with same sex couples seeking to adopt.  In recent decades gay and lesbian households have become much more commonplace.
    • Studies of children brought up by single-sex families show no significant effects in terms of gender identification or sexual orientation. Gottman (1990) found that adult daughters of lesbian mothers were just as likely to be of a heterosexual inclination as daughters of heterosexual mothers.
    • Dunne (1997) argues that children brought up by homosexuals are more likely to be tolerant and see sharing and equality as important features of their relationships with others.
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  • There are three main ways in which social class impacts on families:

    1.     There are different patterns regarding marriage and divorce. The middle class tend to marry later and the working class tend to marry younger (on average four years younger). This may connect to divorce since unskilled manual workers have a divorce rate 4 times higher than the professional classes.

    2.     There is some evidence that class affects roles. Middle class families are more likely to be ‘symmetrical’ – see topic 4a. This means middle class women are more likely to have paid work outside of the home and middle class men are more likely to help with domestic chores. Working class men and women are more likely to have traditional gender roles (instrumental men, and expressive women)

    3.     There are some suggestions that parent-child relationships may differ between classes. King and Raynor suggest that the middle classes are more likely to be ‘child centred’ and children become the focus of family life more so than in working class or upper class families. 

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KEY STUDY – The Rapoports

  • The Rapoports identify six distinct elements of family diversity in Britain:
    • There are differences in the lifestyles of families of different ethnic origins and different religious beliefs. One of the major advantages of living in a multi-ethnic society is the contribution different ethnic groups make to diversity in society. There are a number of culturally specific family structures, but be aware that generalisations are made.
    • There are differences that result from the stage in the life cycle of the family. Newly married couples without children may have a different family life from those with dependent children and from those whose children have achieved adult status. This refers to the way families may change through life. All these factors mean the family will be constantly changing. For instance, levels of family income will change as children move from dependence to independence, levels of domestic labour and childcare will differ, levels of participation in paid employment will alter - particularly for women - due to the absence or presence of children and to the children’s age. We may get married, may get divorced, may remain single or may be widowed.
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KEY STUDY – The Rapoports

    • Organizational diversity. This means there are variations in family structure, household type, patterns of kinship network, and differences in the division of labour within the home. There are variations in family structure, household type, patterns of kinship network, and differences in the division of labour within the home. There are also increasing numbers of 'reconstituted families'.  These families are formed after divorce and remarriage.
    • Cohort - This refers to the periods at which the family has passed through different stages of the family life cycle. Cohort affects the life experiences of the family. For example, those families whose children were due to enter the labour market in the 1980s may be different from other families: the high rates of unemployment during that period may have increased the length of time that those children were dependent on their parents. Your cohort may live in the parental home longer into adulthood due to the economic recession and high housing prices.
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KEY STUDY – The Rapoports

    • The Rapoports suggest that there may be differences based on social class, between middle-class and working-class families in terms of the relationship between husband and wife and the way in which children are socialised and disciplined. Some sociologists argue that middle-class parents are more child-centred than working-class parents. They supposedly take a greater interest in their children’s education, and consequently pass on cultural advantages in terms of attitudes, values and practices – this is known as cultural capital - which assist their children through the educational system. However, critical sociologists argue that working-class parents are just as child-centred, but that material deprivation limits how much help they can give their children. Therefore, the working-class child’s experience is likely to be less satisfactory – because of family poverty, poor schools, lack of material support, greater risks of accidents both in the home and in the street, and so on.
    • Sexual diversity. Studies of couples suggest that relationships between partners are qualitatively different from heterosexual partners in terms of both domestic and emotional labour because they are not subject to gendered assumptions about which sex should be responsible for this task. It is also suggested that same-sex couples work harder at relationships in terms of commitment because they face so many external pressures and criticisms.
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