What is the lifestyle of American families

Family and family politics

Johannes Huinink

To person

is Professor of Sociology with a focus on "Theory and Empirical Social Structure" at the Institute for Empirical and Applied Sociology at the University of Bremen. His research areas are social structure research and the sociology of the life course, in particular the sociology of the family and forms of life.

Contact: [email protected]

The status of the family in people's life plans has changed over the past few decades. Marriage and birth rates are falling and the instability of marriages has increased.

In Germany there are fewer and fewer marriages. The picture shows a mass wedding in Seoul. (& copy AP)

Family development in the curriculum vitae

People's family history is part of their résumé. Traditionally, it was described as a succession of individual phases of family development, which followed one another with great regularity and each made special demands on the lifestyle of individuals (family cycle). After a couple had got to know and love, the traditional family cycle began with marriage and the establishment of their own household as soon as the man could provide for the material basis of the family. The next phase was characterized by the birth of the first child (starting a family), which was followed by the births of second and further children (family expansion). After growing up, the children gradually left home. The parents entered the postparental phase ("empty nest" phase) when the last child had moved out of their household. The process ended with the death of one of the parents. A separation of the parents and a possible reorganization through remarriage or moving in together were not planned.

The departure of the children from the parental home or their marriage marked the beginning of the family cycle in the child generation. The sequence of family phases was therefore seamlessly passed on from one generation to the next. So the term of the cycle was quite appropriate. The family cycle also corresponded to an equally clear and reliable structure in the man’s professional area and income generation. The majority of CVs have never expired as neatly as this model of the family cycle provided, and that is certainly not the case today. Historically, the model best describes the period of the 1950s and 1960s, which was already known as the "golden age of marriage".

A look at the age phase between the ages of 18 and 35, which can be viewed as the time of transition to adulthood, shows this particularly clearly. The mere fact that this large age range has to be applied today is remarkable. It is becoming more and more difficult - also in people's self-image - to say exactly when one sees oneself as an adult. The traditional symbols or "marker events" of this transition, which, in addition to completing an apprenticeship and starting working life, also included marriage and the birth of a child, have lost their significance. Family development has lost its formerly self-evident anchorage in the résumé.

Therefore, examine whoever binds forever
In contrast to the 1950s and 1960s, there are more frequent phases of living alone; one sometimes lives in a couple relationship with separate households, lives unmarried in a couple or lives in shared apartments. Once they have moved out of their parents' home, children may move back once or several times in the meantime. In general, the back and forth between different forms of life has increased. Relationships in couples very often don't last for the rest of your life, even if you are married or have children together.

The sequence of phases and events, as provided in the traditional "normal biography" or in the family cycle, is less and less valid. The proportion of births out of wedlock is constantly increasing. In East Germany, illegitimate family formation has become the norm. Marriage is therefore no longer seen as a prerequisite for parenthood and parenthood is less and less an occasion to marry.

This corresponds to the fact that around half of the unmarried partnerships in the eastern German federal states were parent-child communities in 2003, in western Germany these made up only a quarter - and the trend is rising.

The relationship between private and professional life has become more complicated and, especially for women, less mapped out than it used to be. Lifestyles that could endanger the efforts of both partners to be gainfully employed are therefore unattractive. The change between family phases and employment phases is becoming ever faster for women. The three-phase model (vocational training and employment - family phase - return to work), which was diagnosed in the mid-1950s by the Swedish social scientists Alva Myrdal and Viola Klein, is now largely a thing of the past.

But new forms of "family cycles" have emerged with new regularities. Unmarried cohabitation with a partner is common in many countries, and illegitimate parenting has become normal in many places, not only in East Germany, but also in countries like Sweden, France and Great Britain. The age at which a family is started has increased. In the group of the highly qualified, marriage or starting a family at the age of 35 and over is no longer unusual. However, the birth of children is still relatively concentrated within an age interval that is not too large. Voluntary renunciation of marriage and family has also become a perfectly normal option on résumés. The widespread lack of marriage and children before the triumphant advance of the bourgeois family was still rather involuntary and was due to legal regulations.

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Pacs - a French marriage alternative

In France there is an alternative to marriage, but also to celibacy; it is the "Pacs" (pactes civiles de solidarité), introduced almost ten years ago, and this treaty is enjoying increasing popularity. The rate of increase was recently at 30 percent per year. In 2007, 266,500 marriages and 102,000 "solidarity pacts" were concluded. The Pacs is a civil law contract between two people of the same or different sex, which is usually confirmed by the local court. It can be terminated by one side with a notice period of three months. This is an essential difference from marriage. Another is: It does not create a maintenance model. The Pacs is popular precisely because the legislature has made it compatible with marriage, especially in matters of money.

The partners are assessed jointly for income tax, and in the event of inheritance or gifts, the same tax rates apply as for married couples. In principle, the separation of property applies, which the majority of the spouses also opt for. As in marriage, a Pacs partner can also be insured in the health insurance of the other. If he is a civil servant, the same rules apply to him in the event of a transfer as to a married person. If he is in a relationship with a railway official, he can travel on the state railway for free. However, there is no widow or survivor's pension. The Pacs does not result in any automatic right of residence, the partners are also not allowed to adopt children, and the health insurance companies do not bear the costs of artificial insemination for them. In certain cases, recipients of social assistance can lose their right to state support.
The Pacs tends to replace marriage more and more in France. In 2007, for the first time in France, more children out of wedlock than legitimate children were born. [...]

Michael Kläsgen, "Love with notice", in: Süddeutsche Zeitung of August 26, 2008

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Once again, very different patterns of life courses that are established in the population, but are now usually chosen voluntarily, can be observed, among which the traditional family cycle is only one model among others.