We are family

The family is facing the future in better shape than statistics about single-person households and high rates of divorce suggest. Family ties remain strong, but the shape of the family is changing as we find new solutions to suit changing times
June 19, 1998

It is one of the paradoxes of our age that the more we are able to live as independent individuals, the more important our family roots become. Despite widespread anxiety about the break-up of the family, quality of life surveys reveal high levels of satisfaction with family life-levels are consistently between 70 and 80 per cent, higher than for any other area of life. Ninety per cent of us rate family life as "very important." Family history is booming, with its own magazines and search services. And people without satisfactory blood kin create substitute "families of choice."

The system of measurement used by social scientists is partly responsible for the myth of the decline of the family. The orderly nuclear family, with two children, a breadwinning father and a stay-at-home mother does not break down when mother gets a part-time job. The fact that only a minority of households now qualify for the "nuclear" tag is a reflection not of the rejection of the family but of the narrowness of the definition. The nuclear family is merely a legislative and historiographical convenience, a way of describing and measuring something which is in reality too shifting and individual to be tied down by such categorisation.

In reaction to the 1997 edition of the Office for National Statistics survey Social Trends, much was made of the fact that the average size of households has fallen, and that the number of one-person households has increased to over a quarter of all households (28 per cent). Seven per cent of all households are lived in by one man under the age of 65 and 12 per cent by one woman over the age of 60. Only 23 per cent of households are lived in by families with dependent children.

This is not as worrying as it seems. First, we need to remember that counting households when you are wondering what people are up to is as misguided as counting fields when you are looking for sheep. The increase in the number of households has far exceeded the growth of population in Britain-there are now 7m more of them than there were in 1961. Moreover, occupancy rates are lower. Thanks to new technology and smaller families, houses no longer need live-in servants or indigent relatives to help to run them. Lodging houses, ruled by the iron hand of a landlady, have been replaced by self-contained flats. Temporary households are also created by, for example, students who once lodged in hostels for their three year courses, but are now likely to spend at least two years in a rented room.

It remains true that nine out of ten people marry, and of those who do, nine out of ten have children. If you count individuals rather than households (sheep rather than fields) the statistics sound much less dramatic. Only one in ten people live alone: 88 per cent of us live with at least one companion. Nearly half of us live in households which include children. Although this represents a decline since 1961 (from 64 per cent to 49 per cent) that does not necessarily mean that far fewer people are having children, only that we now have smaller families with the children closer together in age. The effect of this is to make the numbers of traditional nuclear families smaller, because it takes less time to move from life before dependent children to life afterwards.

This is why the number of couples without dependent children has increased considerably since 1961; it now represents a quarter of the population. In fact, given the increase in longevity, we are likely to spend much longer living, more or less companionably, t?te-? -t?te. A short, uncertain lifespan encourages people to cling to what they have. The prospects of decades of more or less intense irritation is a spur to change. It is the increased length of Shelley's "longest journey" that causes many of us to break up and regroup. (We have no idea how many irregular liaisons and informal separations existed in the past, before the formalities of divorce made such arrangements measurable.)

The clamour over the number of couples who break up and regroup distracts attention from the strength of the family networks which go on existing, even expanding, behind the foreground tragedy. "Does the crisis of the married couple signify the death of the family?" asked Andr? Burgui?re in his History of the Family (1996). "On the contrary, it seems to strengthen the kinship networks on which family lines are based." In their study of Bethnal Green in the 1950s, Michael Young and Peter Willmott discovered "plenty of evidence that kinship remains an important force in most people's lives and is in particular still the main source of informal care and support. The wider family shows an impressive resilience, adapting itself to change in the rest of society." In follow-up studies in 1985 and again in 1997, they found no reason to modify these conclusions-although divorce rates had rocketed, an adolescent culture independent of the family had developed, and women worked outside the home.

True, there are more single households than there used to be, but living in such households is a stage in life, before, after or between coupledom, rarely over a whole life. The figure for women living alone is heavily weighted by the fact that women tend to marry men older than they are and that men tend to die earlier than women; it is also distorted by the hundreds of thousands of wartime male casualties which left women now in their 70s and 80s prematurely alone. The increase in the number of single men is in part an aspect of the new ease with which men find themselves able to cope with domesticity (thanks to domestic appliances and supermarkets) and in part a result of the rise in divorce. Most of those single male households under the age of 65 are transit camps: bachelor pads before or between marriages.

Lone parent households represent another form of "transit camp" homes which have created alarm by increasing from 2 per cent to 7 per cent of all households. Attention is focused on single parent families because if they are on benefits they burn a hole in the pocket of the Treasury. However, each year 15 per cent of lone mothers cease to be lone parents, and most marry within five years. Today's lone parent is tomorrow's reconstituted family.

Nevertheless, living alone is a far more attractive option than it has ever been. Thanks to telephones and televisions, there is no need to feel isolated. There is, however, room for concern over the extremes of eccentricity that can occur if people live overly solitary lives. The case of Thomas Hamilton, the obsessive gunman who killed the children of Dunblane Primary School after moving away from his parents and setting up house alone, is a warning that man is for his own health a sociable animal who needs to be held to account for his actions. In future the hazards of life alone, especially for the elderly, may lead to a retreat from our experiment with an option that technology has just made possible.

Families do not end when children become legally independent of their parents at the age of 18. It is a popular myth that family members are moving away from each other, says a 1996 fact sheet produced by the Family Policy Studies Centre. In fact, children are staying close to their parents for much longer in these days of high-priced housing. Many children remain with their parents well into their adult lives. Half of all men between the ages of 20 and 24 live with their parents; and one in ten men between the ages of 30 and 34. Women are less likely to remain at home: about one third of those in their early 20s are living with their parents, and only one in 20 of those aged between 30 and 34.

More people are living in independent households, but there has been no decline in contact with relatives and patterns of intergenerational aid and exchange. Although the rate of co-residence of different generations is decreasing, the rate of proximate residence is increasing. A single house conversion could change a family home into three households, all officially childless, but it could still house the same family, with a newly-weds' love nest on the top floor and a granny flat in the basement. If the couple at the heart of this family split up, the building could be officially measured as four households, three of them single. A 1993 survey by Janet Finch and Jennifer Mason discovered that 32 per cent of us live less than one hour away from a relative, and only 9 per cent are more than four hours away. Contact is frequent. We know from personal experience how often relatives find each other jobs, lend money and help out with childcare and care for the elderly.

American studies confirm that it is not the isolated nuclear family that is characteristic of industrial society but the "modified extended family"-a coalition of nuclear families, some but not all related, which exchange services with each other. In his 1995 revisiting of Middletown, US, Theodore Caplow remarks: "The habit of visualising family life in terms of the isolated nuclear family is so strong that we are always in danger of overlooking or forgetting the emotional, social and economic importance of those larger kin networks that we may call 'composite families.'" He concludes that "the composite family-amorphous and informally organised though it is-is in splendid condition in Middletown."

The size of the composite family remains relatively constant from cradle to grave. "Christmas is a powerful celebration of the family in its broadest sense. The median numbers of family members involved in any one individual's celebration of Christmas fluc-tuates between 12 and 15." The constellation keeps shifting-at birth, it will be primarily of parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and siblings; in old age, children, grandchildren and surviving brothers and sisters, plus spouses of all.

As the population shrinks, siblings and uncles and aunts may be thinner on the ground, but with at least one divorce likely to be part of the composite family's experience, the circle will be extended to include stepchildren and even former in-laws who often retain status as "family." As in tribal societies, relations with nieces and nephews will be closer if individuals or couples have no children of their own.

Kin is a very flexible concept. The huge number of orphans in the 18th century called for fictive kin in the form of "friends," a word which could then imply obligations as binding as actual kinship. Today the foreground of people's lives is once again occupied by a network of like-minded friends, a logical result of the way we are educated, and the fact that more and more of us live in cities rather than small rural communities. Urban families respond to an impossibly large number of neighbours by becoming more private, or "individuated," a situation encouraged by the pattern of public utilities, state welfare schemes and impersonal shopping centres. Each family has a relatively large measure of privacy and freedom to regulate its own affairs. But most families are not isolated. Members maintain many relationships with individuals and groups outside the family.

Contrary to popular belief, the postwar population is more settled than it used to be, and friendship networks have increased in size, now that the telephone and the car have made it easier to maintain them. Such a network differs from an organised group. It is a social configuration in which some but not all members maintain relationships with each other. They do not make up a larger social whole, and are not surrounded by a common boundary.

To capture this changing state of affairs, the sociologist Jeffrey Weeks has developed the concept of families of choice. "For many people today family means something more than biological affinity," he says. "It means something you create for yourself, something that involves interactions, commitment and obligations that have to be negotiated in a world where nothing is pre-given or certain." Friends, he believes, are becoming as important as relatives. The new friendships are much more than convenient handrails before you disappear up the aisle with your beloved. They are the enduring pacts of the US sitcom Friends, the film Four Weddings and a Funeral or Nick Hornby's novel About a Boy. Such elective affinities can reach the parts that family has failed. "Love and trust are the two most important things that I get from my friends," says Peter, a 32-year-old interviewed by Weeks' researchers. "It's not the love I get with my family; it's that I know that they like me as well. They've chosen me."

Weeks says that in describing friendships, "the language of family is very much alive." Ruth, another interviewee, had always felt rootless, as if she didn't really belong anywhere. "Then I realised that if I wanted a family, or a history or an identity, I had to create it." To her, friendships are "a family I've made," the focus of her loyalties and obligations.

Families of choice flourish most among people in their 20s. The strength of such networks may go into abeyance when a couple settle down and have children, a time when they are most likely to call on real kin for support. The intense personal attention to children now demanded of both mothers and fathers leads to a dramatically curtailed social life, and childfree friends get impatient with the new parents' obsession with infant milestones. But once the family shrinks as children come of age, or marriages break up, old friends are rediscovered and new ones made. "Fifty is the joining age" runs the adage. Membership of sporting clubs, hobby groups and similar associations is highest in countries with the most single-person households. Eighty-three per cent of Danes are members of an association, compared with only 16 per cent of Spaniards.

Grandparents have traditionally been the most important part of the composite family; supporting their adult children with more or less welcome advice, childminding, finance and accommodation. In ten or 15 years time, the healthiest and largest generation of the century will be in their 60s. Growing up after the war, they have the fresh hopes of the 1960s in their blood. They could be the most inspiring of mentors and guides for their grandchildren-and restore a great tradition of family continuity.

Since the war, the median age of retirement has dropped from 65 to 60 for men. One in ten 55- to 64-year-olds had retired in 1946, compared to three in ten in 1981 and five in ten in 1996. The increasing likelihood of early retirement and the prospect of a long, healthy old age gives new promise to the two decades between 50 and 70. Well-padded with pension provision, free of the expense of children, and part of the first generation to reap the financial bonus of owner occupancy, "Third Agers" seem set for a golden future. They are younger, richer and fitter than they have ever been. New jobs, new partners, lifelong education programmes, new hobbies and Saga holidays spread out in front of the fortunate majority fit enough to take advantage of them.

Only one in 20 people over 65 will need residential care. Most will continue far healthier than former generations of old people, with only a short illness, if any, before death. The longer you live, the fitter you tend to be. Only 25 per cent of women and only 15 per cent of men over 85 will end up in a home.

The greater fitness and availability of the Third Agers is good timing for mothers who are increasingly likely to need to work, at least part of the time. And after three decades of declaring that there was absolutely no substitute for constant maternal care-an assertion based on the ideas of John Bowlby-childcare experts have obligingly decided that "significant others," including grandparents and fathers, are as important as mothers to children.

Almost half of the pre-school children of working mothers are looked after by relatives, most often a grandmother. This proportion is likely to increase. It is now technologically simple for independent living spaces to be constructed in households, to house a nanny, granny or a young adult as the need arises. Families will be more rather than less likely to stick together as the economic going gets tougher.

There are some qualifications to this happy picture. Global economic competition could make retirement on a pension a luxury we cannot afford. And what will happen when several generations of parents have had children in their 30s? Grandparents will tend to be in their 60s or 70s on the birth of a first grandchild, rather than in their 40s and 50s as they used to be. Will they be too set in their ways to adapt to the demands of modern child nurture?

An unexpected effect of the welfare state is that it has encouraged us to feel that the family is a safety net of last resort. But 50 years of increased reliance on institutions to cope with children, the mentally ill and the elderly has resulted in a disenchantment with such arrangements. We are more likely to want to make personal provision for our own kith and kin.

The signs are that in the future we will retreat from the generous social policies of the postwar years partly for financial, partly for ideological reasons. The means test is likely to return; so too will a sense of failure and shame at not being self-sufficient. Set in opposition to the pursuit of personal satisfaction will be the individual's need for support from a network of kin and friends-and his or her obligation, in turn, to provide for them.

How will the family of the future be characterised? Short on aunts, uncles, cousins and live-in dependants, it can no longer be described as extended. Increasingly unlikely to be a cosy symmetrical foursome for long (if at all), it is hardly nuclear. It will typically have a long four-generational stem and an unpredictable accumulation of lifelong friends, in-laws from first marriages, new half-kin from remarriages, godparents and godchildren. It will be frequently quarrelsome and critical, but respectful of each member's independence and united in adversity. It is the "maypole family": long and thin, and with any number of strands winding and unwinding around it. A powerful and supportive structure, it will be, in the great majority of cases, the first resort in a crisis.

With any luck, we will give family values a higher priority in future. We will value the maypole family as the heart of our lives. Instead of expecting ideal homes and dream lovers, we will return to the pragmatic resignation of GK Chesterton. "The family is a good institution because it is uncongenial," he wrote in 1905. "It is wholesome precisely because it contains so many divergences and varieties. It is, as the sentimentalists say, like a little kingdom, and like most other little kingdoms, is generally in a state of something resembling anarchy."