Statistical Trends of Today’s Families

By Eugene C. Roehlkepartain

Dan Quayle and Murphy Brown weren’t the first people to lock horns over the shape of families today. On the one side are those who proclaim the families liberation from oppressive societal norms. On the other are those who bemoan the demise of “Traditional” families.

Lost in the rhetoric are the often complicated realities about families.
As Bruce A. Chadwick and Tim B. Heaton write in the new Stastical Handbook on the American Family (Oryx, 1992), changes in the family are difficult to measure and describe – and such measurements are easy to manipulate to fit a particular agenda. It seems appropriate, then, to examine some of the basic numbers (mostly from the U.S. Bureau of the Census) that underlie the debate, and to describe the realities in which we live and minister.

Overall family trends – Since 1950, the number of households in the U.S. has doubled to almost 93 million. Part of this jump can be attributed to population growth, but more significant is the decline in average family size from 3.7 people in 1940 to 2.6 in 1987. Thus, with more people overall, there are more households partly because there are fewer people in each one.

Much of this decline in family size has occurred because of the increased numbers of single-parent and single-person households (particularly among young adults and the elderly). It also reflects the fact that the view of the “ideal-sized” family for Americans has been changing. In 1936, only 34 percent of adults said the “ideal number of children for a family to have” was two or fewer. By l986, 66 percent of adults chose small families.

Chadwick and Heaton conclude: “Decreased fertility, more childlessness, fewer children, and living longer have produced a typical American family with no children under age 18. Today, the average family includes no minor children, and almost two-thirds of all households have no children present.”

Never-married singles – About 22 percent of the adult population in the
U.S. is single, and the group has grown in its representation in the
total population in the past 20 years. Men are more likely to be single
than women, and the vast majority of single people are in their 20’s.

What do these differences mean? Are more and more adults choosing to remain single throughout adulthood? Or are they marrying later? Most likely it’s a combination of both. The percentage of adults over 40 who have been married has remained relatively stable since at least 1970, suggesting that people may just be marrying later. At the same time, because of the many social influences involved, it’s difficult to know whether young adults who are remaining single now will marry in the future.

Cohabiting couples – One factor that may be hidden in some of the marital status statistics on singleness is the proportion of adults who never marry but live together. In other words, one reason rates of singleness may be increasing is that more couples are choosing to cohabit” In 1988, approximately 2.5 million unmarried couples lived together, representing about 3 percent of 11 households. It is most common among the young and the divorced.

The most common reason couples have for living together is to make sure they are compatible. About half indicate that they intend to marry each other in the future. It’s interesting to note, however, that, living together doesn’t seem to have an impact on long-term marital satisfaction. Marriages are just as satisfying for couples whomever lived together as for those who did.

Single-parent families – If our image of single adults is the “swinging singles” stereotype, we’re likely to overlook the rapidly growing population of single-parent families. About 28 percent of all households are headed by single women, and 16 percent are headed by single men. This group includes both unmarried and divorced parents.

More than 20 percent of all women who gave birth in 1987 weren’t married. The overall rate of out-of-wedlock births has more than doubled since 1955, from 15 births per 1,000 women to 34 births per 1000 women. However, this increase in birthrates doesn’t directly point to a dramatic increase in conception rates, since women who come pregnant today outside of marriage are much less likely to marry before giving birth.

In the case of teenagers, births have actually declined substantially since 1955. But since significantly fewer teenagers get married after becoming pregnant, the number of out-of-wedlock births to teenagers has more than doubled. Only 14 percent of births to teenagers were non-marital in 1955 compared to 62 percent of teenage births in 1987.

In addition to the never-married parents, the other major portion of single-parent families is those created by divorce. Each year, about 1 million children under age 18 are affected by divorce, and the average divorce involves one child. Most recent estimates project that more than half of all children born today will experience family disruption before age 18, primarily because of divorce or because parents never marry.

Married couples – Married couples remain the largest portion of the family picture in the U.S. Overall, 63 percent of the adult population is married (including remarriages). However, the percentage who are married has declined as rates of never-married and divorced adults have increased.

Most married couples are quite satisfied with their marriage and family life. Chadwick and Heaton note that 60 to 65 percent of married adults consistently report in studies being “very happy,” and another 30 to 35 percent say they are “pretty happy.”

Other studies suggest that communication between husbands and wives has increased dramatically through the century and the quality of marriage relationships may have actually deepened. However, this deepening of some marriages has been accompanied by increasing rates of divorce for others.

Divorce and remarriage – Numbers on divorce are quite difficult to decipher because they can be presented in innumerable ways. One study found that 36 percent of first marriages of women ages 15 to 44 had ended in separation, divorce or death. Another found that more than 20 percent of couples who married in the 1970s and early ’80s ended their marriage within the first five years, and over a third ended it within the first 10 years. Rates of divorce are higher for subsequent marriages.

Remarriages are a common reality in family life today. Among women who divorce or whose spouse dies, about 60 percent remarry. Of all the marriages in a given year, almost half involve at least one person who has been previously married. About 22 percent of marriages are the first marriage for one of the two people, but not both. And 23 percent of marriages are between two people who both have been previously married.

All these numbers can start blurring together – and we haven’t even talked about blended or adoptive families, or the thorny issues surrounding families headed by homosexuals. Furthermore, we haven’t even begun to talk about the implications of these trends for congregational ministry.

Yet this overview of some of the statistics on families illustrates an important point: Changes in families are too complex to be captured by simple slogans and platitudes. The numbers may, indeed, bring bad (or good) news about families, but it is often difficult to tell on the surface. We must dig deeper into the realities, challenges, stresses and opportunities within families of all types to discover how they need to hear the good news.

(The above information was published by THE CHRISTIAN MINISTRY, July/August 1993)

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