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American ties (II)

Claude Fischer, professor of sociology | February 3, 2011

The American family has changed greatly in the last couple of generations – some call that change a “breakdown” and others prefer a term like “evolution.” For one, the family starts later; that is, Americans marry and have their first children at an older age they used to. For another, the family is smaller, with fewer children. The decline in family size largely took place in the ‘60s and ‘70s and then leveled off. Fewer children born since the 1960s means that today’s adults have fewer sibs, aunts, uncles, and cousins than Americans did 40 years ago. A rough calculation suggests that the average American today has about 25% fewer blood kin than the average American of the 1970s had.

kinship diagram

A.F. Burns, U. of FL.

But what most people mean when they say the family has changed, broken down, or evolved is less about the quantity and more about the quality of family ties – something about how much people are involved with kin, rely on kin, care about kin. That is a lot harder to measure than simple numbers, but there are fragmentary survey data. And they suggest a complex picture of change and continuity.

(Disclosure: This post is part of an occasional series drawing from my new book, Still Connected: Family and Friends in America since 1970. Further details can be found there.  A previous post focused on friends and confidants.)


One common impression is that American families – parents and their children – are not spending as much time together as they used to. And there is some truth to that perception. For example, between the 1970s and 1990s, the Roper polling organization asked parents about how often they did various things “as a family,” such as entertaining or visiting friends, watching television, or talking. Generally, the percentage who said they did so frequently went up and down, but the trend was toward fewer whole-family events.

In the graph below, the blue dots show the percentage of parents who said that they “frequently” ate meals together as a family during the work week (presumably understood as eating at home). Those reports seemed to become less common over time (the blue line). Other surveys suggest similar trends. A 2009 poll asked respondents why they sometimes did not eat together as a family. The most common explanations were that “people are working late” and, among parents, that “kids have activities that conflict with dinner.” Consistent with the “busy family” explanation are answers in the same Roper polls to a question asking parents how often they ate out as a family. The red diamonds in the figure suggest that American families started going out to eat together more often during those same years.


The simplest explanation for these trends is that so many more mothers worked in the 1990s than in the early 1970s. In addition, more kids participated in after-school activities. Both developments made it a bit harder for families to have dinner at home together and even to do other things together; they also made catching a meal out an easy way to handle the time pressure. (For a fuller look at contemporary American families’ struggles with time, see here.)


Survey researchers have regularly asked Americans how often they see their relatives – parents, siblings, and so forth. The answers have changed very little in the last four decades. (There is an interesting wrinkle, however: Survey respondents reported, on average, a little less contact with their fathers. That is explained by the fact that more adults in the 2000s than in the 1970s had grown up without their fathers at home.) The most complete data on contact with kin comes from the General Social Survey’s question asking respondents how often they spent “a social evening with relatives.” As the figure below shows, the percentage who said they did so at least several times a month varied little over nearly four decades – even though Americans had somewhat fewer relatives to see in the 2000s. Comparable evidence  suggest that Americans today talk to or contact their relatives as often or, probably, more often than Americans did a few decades ago.


Support and caring

The key issue, of course, is how much people rely on and care for their immediate families and other relatives. This is a more complex issue than it seems at first glance, because families and relatives are simultaneously the greatest source of support and love that we have and the greatest source of demands and aggravation that we have. This balance is hard to measure, but the pieces of evidence that we have (discussed in Still Connected) suggests that, on average, Americans’ ties to their kin are as or more secure and loving now as they were in the 1970s.

How can that be, given the widespread impression of exactly the opposite, that family bonds have withered? One answer is that our impressions of the past are systematically distorted in a rosy direction. (For example, we tend to remember the “past” in the form of our own childhoods and, for most of us, those were innocent years. Did parents talk in the front of the little children about, say, Aunt Mildred’s abusive first marriage?) Another answer is that the harder economic times most Americans faced since the early 1970s have pushed more of them to depend on relatives. A third answer is that family is so important to Americans that they make sure that whatever else is going on — mothers working, technological marvels, cultural earthquakes, and the like – they stay connected.

Fischer family photo

Family valuing shows up in various surveys. One survey asked Americans how important family was too them. In the 1990s and 2000s, virtually all Americans said family was “very important” (while the percentage who said work was very important slipped from about 60 to about 30 percent). In another survey, more Americans in the 2000s than in 1980s said that they wanted to spend “much more” time with their families. And, between the 1970s and 2000s, a growing percentage of Americans said that they thought it was a “good idea” for the elderly to live with their children and grandchildren. (It was younger Americans and not the elderly who were most likely to endorse this plan.)

Worrying about the fragility of the family is a perennial activity; Americans have worried aloud about its imminent collapse for generations (with the possible exception of the 1950s when many experts worried that the family was too smothering). So, it is no wonder that we worry, too. And the family certainly has changed. But Americans still cling to their families and their family values.

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.