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How many times have your parents started a sentence with, “Well when I was a kid…” and then proceeded to tell you about how, in their childhood, they respected their parents or didn’t have the same luxuries that you have been given? Either sentiment reads as an attempt to illustrate that they had it harder than you. 

In comparing childhoods with your parents, there will be many differences because so much about society has changed between those time periods. As a society, we have become more progressive and have placed different levels of value on each aspect of our lives. Women in today’s society have increased opportunities for a wider array of careers. There is an increased acceptance of individuality and encouragement to express your true self. Familial commitment is created through actions, not a requirement based on blood. Some, such as David Popenoe, argue there has been a decrease in the meaning of family. However, has this been a decrease? Or just a shift in its meaning?

A shift in family dynamics is nothing new. In the 1800s, more rural times, corporate families were a popular structure organized around the family business for the purpose of having children for labor. Then there was a shift to an emphasis on extended family, in which a community of support was formed with multigenerational households. Eventually, there was the development of a nuclear family in the 1920s, with two married parents living away from their extended family and having their 2.5 children. This style was often seen in 1950s sitcoms, such as “Leave It to Beaver”, which followed an “all-American family.” These sitcoms highlighted the guaranteed safety of the working father and stay-at-home mother living behind a picket fence while their children play basketball in the neighborhood. These families moved for opportunity and therefore couldn’t stay with their larger heritage and roots.

With fewer hands to help, more families living away from their extended families reduced the number of children they were having. However, think about the economic and social conditions around the 1950s; the standard of living was higher, the economy was booming and it was possible to live off of one stream of income. The institution of family changed and developed based on the conditions and norms of society at the time. 

How does family structure look today? In the United States, as of 2020, the probability that two people chosen at random would be from different racial or ethnic groups was 61.1%. The United States’ diversity makes it important to take a multidimensional approach to understanding its family structures. What defines a family? Is it only parents and children? Extended family? Important friends? A formed community? Someone you take care of? Has the institution of family declined or has the meaning just become more diverse? 

Today, the values of American families, as defined by MassMutual, are to have financial security, a comfortable retirement and to educate their children. Three in four Americans are not prepared for a financial emergency, and less than half feel they can achieve financial security. There is an enhanced purpose for mothers to enter the workforce, with 57.4% participating in 2019. Today, 59.5% of college students are women, illustrating a rise in the desire for a career by women in the United States. Many claim women are not as devoted to their families anymore, which weakens couple and family dynamics. However, now that women are not devoting their entire life to the sole purpose of motherhood. Large corporate families with seven or eight children are more rare than they ever were in the past. Today, American children make up a smaller proportion of the American population. Twenty-three percent of children in the United States live with one parent, with America having the highest rate of children in single-parent families. 

The United States also has the thirteenth highest divorce rate. As the main dissolver of relationships, ranked above even death, divorce is slowly becoming normalized and more accepted. However, some claim that reduced pressure to stay with their partner leads to a lack of commitment. But, should anyone feel the pressure to stay in a relationship that continually creates anger for the sake of commitment? Or should they have the freedom of leaving a relationship without the stigma of abandoning their families? 

Popenoe claims three areas have led to the decline of family: demographic, institutional and cultural factors. He claims the institutional reasoning for this decline is that families have lost the power over their members. A person’s life choices are no longer dictated by the opinions of their family, which, in a way, reduces the relevance of family members in your everyday life. Yet why would anyone want to revert back to the cultural norm that your parents decide your career, who you marry, where you live and what you do? 

With recent social movements, we have witnessed how the expression of individuality has created a more progressive and accepting society that pushes change and growth. Everyone deserves a place in the world to feel as though they belong, even if that doesn’t exist with their biological family. Therefore, there has been an increase in non-family households. In 2017, only 65% of all households were family households. Whether one finds happiness within a marriage, their family, residential independence or a non-family household, they should not feel restricted by the traditional institution of family. 

It is important to understand these developments in our conceptions of the family unit in order to reflect on our own family structures. Who do you consider to be family? How does your family aid you in becoming a better person? If your immediate family doesn’t look how society expects it to, know these expectations do not reflect the accuracy of the United States population. And if you cannot find that place of security and support within your immediate family, acknowledge that family can be anyone. The meaning of family isn’t declining — it has just found a new place in our constantly changing world. You can compare statistics from 40 years apart, but you must consider the context of modern society. 

Gabby Rivas is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at