If one was to ask people in the United States about what it means to be a family, the answers would invariably differ based on the age of the individual that has been asked. Throughout the last century, from 1900 to present day, there have been immense changes in what defines a family and what comprises a family in United States culture. Moreover, these changes have brought about various forms of transformations, resulting in both advantages and disadvantages to those who live in certain family situations. Throughout this paper, these changes will be evaluated for their historical impact as well as the benefits and detriments that are offered through each family type.
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Generally speaking, one of the most significant factors that have changed the way that families are constructed in the United States has been the amount of people in each family. In the early part of the 20th century, it was common for families to be quite large. According to data gathered during this time, over twenty percent of all families during the year 1900 had over seven members living under the same roof (Pearson, 2006). This put the average household size at that time at 4.93 people per home. This number steadily declined during the years following World War II, but remained at 3.37 people per home during the years that spawned what is now known as the Baby Boomer Generation (Pearson, 2006). Since there were more jobs and an expansion to move to the suburban areas, there was less of reason to have so many children to support a family. Birth rates have continued to fall in the modern age, and more people are opting to live on their own or marry later in life, causing this rate of people to households to fall to an all-time low of 2.57 as of March 2004. (Pearson, 2006). This may be one of the most significant changes to the notion of a family, since fewer people can affect a large number of changes in the household such as overall income and amount of attention for each individual.
Another one of the largest changes that have impacted the United States family system since 1900 has been the changing values system in regards to marriage. In the year 1910, only 13.6 percent of all children were raised in a family where there was a fragmented family situation (Ruggles, 1994). This includes parents that are deceased, but more commonly divorced. While this trend of low incident rates of divorce held through the oft-idealized 1950s in the United States, it began to rapidly accelerate during the 1980s to 33.5 percent and now rests at 40.5 percent of people throughout the United States that live in fragmented families (Ruggles, 1994). During this time, the concept of the nuclear family, a both parents and their children, has fallen into shambles, but is not indicative of social degeneration, only a shift in values. As a result of these changes, there has been an increase in the number of parents that are cohabitating with their own parents while they attempt to raise their own child.
One of the other familial modalities that has changed over the last centuries involves the individuals who comprise a family unit as well as those who cohabitate. For example, families in the 1900s rarely had children from other marriages living in the household, which is now found in one in five of all homes in the United States (Rosengrant, 2014). Even though relative house sizes have fallen in the last century, there has been a recent uptick in the amount of individuals that have parents living with them or that live with their parents to help with childcare. While it was expected to have one’s parents living with them in the early part of the 20th century, it fell out of the social ideal in the mid 20th century as more people opted for independence. However, these changes have not had an impact on the overall numbers of people that are living together in a single household, but instead provide a mechanism through which to explore these changes. Still, it is important to recognize that overall cohabitation between men and women who are unmarried has risen significantly from just 400,000 people in 1950 to 3.8 million in 2010 (Grabmeier, 2012).Still, one can examine the change in the overall family unit by exploring the birth rates of individuals within the confines of marriage and those who are not born in marriage.