Academic journal article Family Relations

Older Adults and Their Children: Family Patterns of Structural Diversity

Academic journal article Family Relations

Older Adults and Their Children: Family Patterns of Structural Diversity

Article excerpt

Older Adults and Their Children: Family Patterns of Structural Diversity*

In a qualitative study of 45 older adults, we found evidence of diversity across individual and family life histories. In-depth analysis of the cases looking across two generations revealed four patterns of diversity: conventional/pluralistic, pluralistic/pluralistic, conventional/conventional, and pluralistic/conventional. The findings suggest the importance for family and gerontological researchers and practitioners to understand the prevalence of structural family diversity that exists in the lives of older adults and their descendants.

Sociologists and historians of the family have demonstrated that the history of the family is a story of diversity and complexity (Elder, 1981). Individual and family lives were far less predictable and structured (Hareven, 1982, 1994; Mintz & Kellogg, 1988; Modell, Furstenberg, & Hershberg, 1976) than many commentators of family decline assume today (Glenn, 1997; Popenoe, 1993). The "conventional family pattern" of the nuclear, two-parent, never-divorced family was actually a demographic anomaly. Family stability in the mid-part of the 20th century, the post war years, in which a large cohort of individuals married early and had a disproportionate number of children, was possible because of benefits in housing and education from the GI bill. Mostly, the White middle class benefited from these economic concessions. The conformity of the 1950s was supplanted with increasing pluralism in family structure by 1960 as mothers of young children returned to the paid labor force in large numbers (Stacey, 1990). Little empirical evidence exists to support the nostalgic belief that family life in past times was characterized by structural homogeneity and relational harmony (Coontz, 1992, 1997) .

Despite the diversity and complexity social historians have documented in past family life, the current postindustrial era, characterized by globalization and technological transformations, has introduced new challenges unanticipated by theorists of modern social progress (White, 1991). The emergence of this pluralistic, or postmodern, era in the late 20th century signals a new uncertainty about the present and future (Cheal, 1993; Lather, 1991). Instead of the expectation that one's procreative family will mirror one's family of origin, proceeding through orderly stages in marital and parental careers (Hill & Rodgers, 1964), greater discontinuities with the immediate past (e.g., the conventional modern era) characterize contemporary family life (Cheal, 1991). As Uhlenberg (1980) demonstrated in his historical analysis of key family transitions, marriages were far more likely to end in death of a spouse at the turn of the century than in divorce, as they are today. Uhlenberg's demographic analysis was corroborated by Allen's (1989) qualitative study of 30 lifelong single women and widows born in 1910, one-third of whom lost a parent to death during childhood. Compared to a century ago, individuals today are far more likely to anticipate changes in family structure due to the plurality created through parental divorce, rather than death. At the beginning of the 20th century, 25% of children experienced the death of a parent prior to reaching age 15, but only 7% experienced parental separation or divorce. More than 50% of the children born in the 1990s are expected to spend some time in a single-parent home (Amato, in press).

Older Americans came of age in a time when divorce was increasing, but still stigmatized (Goode, 1956). Teen pregnancy was hidden, and girls had few choices but to marry the baby's father and lie about the date of conception (Thompson, 1995). Until the mid-1970s, the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association classified homosexuality as a mental disorder (Herek, Kimmel, Amaro, & Melton, 1991). Until 1960, interracial marriages were few in number, and 29 states still had legal prohibitions against Black-White marriages. …

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