Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Changing Courses: The Pendulum of Family Transitions in Comparative Perspective

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Changing Courses: The Pendulum of Family Transitions in Comparative Perspective

Article excerpt


Striking transformations are taking place in the family lives of young adults in Western, industrialized societies. Relative to their parents' generation, today's young people often experience less permanency and more movement in and out of a variety of family-related roles, statuses and living arrangements. Notably, the "complete" transition to adulthood has been delayed, as young people depart parental homes and begin their own families at increasingly older ages. Moreover, these transitional behaviours often become "reversed," as many young people experiment with a variety of living arrangements and intimate partnerships. For example, young people do not necessarily leave home "for good" since many return as "boomerang kids." Common-law relationships are also highly prevalent, yet they often dissolve and are more fragile than traditional, legal marriage, which also has a relatively high probability of dissolution (e.g., Nock, 1995; Statistics Canada, 2002a).

As a result of these trends, some scholars and the mass media characterize contemporary family-related transitions to adulthood as fraught with uncertainty, indecision and complexity (e.g., see Beck, 1992; Klarenbach, 2004; Mortimer and Larson, 2002; Zinn, 2004). In this vein, the current generation of young people has been depicted as being "on hold" (e.g., see Côté and Allahar, 1994), with the movement toward adult roles and statuses envisioned as chaotic, prolonged, risky, and less permanent relative to earlier family life. Implicit in these stereotypical images is the belief that in the past, young transitions to adulthood were universal, standardized and more predictable.

Yet, while there may be some partial support of these allegations, Coontz (1992: 1) argues that, "the actual complexity of our history - even of our own personal experience - gets buried under the weight of an idealized image." Moreover, our perceptions of family life are often affected by the historical benchmark or time frame that we use to juxtapose contemporary family life. Thus, assumptions about modern day family life may be shaped by depictions of "traditional" family life that may be historically specific, overly simplistic and/or not empirically founded. Indeed, some researchers argue that there has never been a "golden age" of family stability. Rather, diversity, fluctuations, and cyclical patterns in patterns of youth transitions to adulthood have been ubiquitous (e.g., see Gee, 2000).

In response to this ongoing controversy, the objective of this paper is to contribute to the family change debate by providing an overview of contemporary family-related transitions from a historical, life-course perspective. These behaviours include: leaving and returning to the parental home, the timing of marriage, and maternal age at first birth. International comparisons will also be made with the U.S. and several industrialized western European countries (Britain, Italy, and Sweden) in order to situate Canadian patterns within the context of international, population-level patterns of family change. This comparative analysis can also help elucidate underlying trends of continuity, diversity, and change in modern industrialized societies.

The primary historical benchmark that will be used to compare modern-day transitions will be the stereotypical "1950s" family structure. For many Canadians, this family type represents a cultural symbol of nostalgic "traditional" family life. From this vantage point, family transitions are envisioned as entailing early homeleaving, marriage and parenthood, and low rates of transition reversal (i.e., home returning, divorce). However, fluctuations in the timing of these transitions over the past century will also be noted in order to identify longer term aspects of continuity, diversity and social change in family life. The paper will conclude with an exploration of how the new phase of "emerging adulthood," as coined by Arnett (2000), affects contemporary family transitions to adulthood and intergenerational relationships. …

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