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 timesby Christina Hardyment / June 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
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…