Stephanie Coontz on feminism and the American family
Joseph F. Cotto is a social journalist by trade and student...
FLORIDA, October 20, 2012 — All too often, people mistake fiction for fact. Considering that we live in an era where the lines between entertainment and information have been blurred almost beyond comprehension, this becomes an indescribably challenging problem.
We also live in an era of delayed marriage or, in many cases, no marriage at all. More people than ever before are choosing to cohabit or remain single. The once marginalized childless trend is gaining popularity as well.
Needless to say, these developments have left more than a few self-styled traditionalists less than pleased.
Stephanie Coontz is one of our time’s foremost social scientists. She has written about the American family at length, and uncovered more than a few inconvenient truths in the process.
In the first part of a candid discussion with me, she explained about how “family values” might be defined, among other things. Now, she explains her opinions regarding why so many idolize the 1950s, whether or not unmarried life is a positive consequence of increased opportunities, how feminism has impacted Western family norms, and much more.
Joseph F. Cotto:Why, in your opinion, do so many continue to idolize the ‘50s?
Dr. Stephanie Coontz: Partly, I think, because many people tend to confuse old sit coms with documentaries. Also, if you weren’t personally experiencing discrimination, poverty, abuse or family dysfunction, you didn’t hear about the many who were.
But there was also a very different social and economic climate, especially for white men who were not highly educated. We came out of the war with a huge head-start over our former allies and enemies alike and our economic advantage was magnified by tremendous government and private investment in infrastructure, leading to an unprecedented economic boom. The greater clout of unions and employers’ lack of access to outsourcing helped ensure that workers in the manufacturing industry experienced rising real wages throughout a 25-year-long period of expansion.
Cheap housing and new schools allowed many working-class parents to move to new suburbs and prepare their children for more socioeconomic mobility. Technological innovations had not yet combined with intensified global competition to ratchet up the time pressures on professionals. So if you had a “good enough” family, there were many ways in which family life was more predictable and less stressful. If you didn’t, though, you were out of luck, because there was no place to turn.
Cotto:These days, more people than ever before are delaying marriage or choosing not to marry at all. Is this a positive consequence of increased socioeconomic opportunity?
Dr. Coontz: It’s positive for some people and negative for others. For Americans who delay marriage to complete their education or pursue a career, their chances of eventual marriage are very high, and when they do marry they have a lower risk of divorce. Those who do not marry at all have more options as singles than ever before. So this is largely a positive consequences of their greater socioeconomic opportunities.
But as less-educated and lower-income workers lose ground in this economy, they often delay or forgo marriage because so many individuals in the potential partners they meet look like economic liabilities rather than assets, and because they have little confidence in their ability to build a stable enough life to sustain a long-term relationship. So for these people, non-marriage is a consequence of decreased socioeconomic opportunities, and in turn it exacerbates their disadvantage.
Cotto:Fewer people are having children today than in past decades. Many find this to be troublesome. What are your opinions about the subject?
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