American Families: Changes in the Twentieth Century

American Families: Changes in the Twentieth Century

What narrative best characterizes the history of American families? Should their story be read nostalgically, as one of decline from an era when two-parent families with children dominated the domestic landscape but as one of relative stability over time or should it emphasize fundamental changes undermining the very concept of “family” itself? Did a singular “American family” ever exist or has diversity been the hallmark of America’s families throughout the twentieth century?

These questions underlie the exchange between E. Kay Trimberger and Arlene Skolnick that followed Skolnick’s article on marriage. (Dissent, Fall 2006 and Spring 2007). Trimberger emphasizes change; Skolnick argues that both conservative and progressive writers on family overlook continuity. Both cite statistics that buttress their cases. How, then, are we to resolve the issue? The question is important because, as both authors contend, divergent narratives of family history lead in different directions. Conservatives, for instance, have equated “family decline” with moral decay and used it to justify a variety of antiprogressive positions.

In part, the disagreement between Trimberger and Skolnick rests on what at first seems an arcane scholarly disagreement about the unit of measurement: is the trajectory of family history best captured by concentrating on the family and household settings in which most individuals lived, as argued by Skolnick, or by tracing the composition of families and households over time, as Trimberger does? On closer inspection of the data, the stories do not vary as much as they at first seem.

Skolnick’s focus on individuals leads her to argue that most people still live in nuclear families and that marriage is about as strong as ever. For evidence she draws on the work of sociologists Claude S. Fischer and Michael Hout in their excellent recent book, A Century of Difference: How America Changed in the Last One Hundred Years. Fischer and Hout were one of two teams commissioned by the Russell Sage Foundation to write a book putting the year 2000 census in the perspective of social and economic trends in the twentieth century. We were the other team. Our book, One Nation Divisible: What America Was and What It Is Becoming follows a different tack in examining family and household history over the course of the century. We focus on households as the unit of measurement and examine the experience of individuals by tracing the history of the life course, especially the transition from adolescence to independent adulthood and the transition to old age. We pay special attention to the intersection between family and life course over time and the response o...

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