- Dire pronouncements on the future of American families.
- Single moms worry their sons are doomed to lives of violence.
- Pundits propose harsh penalties against people in “non-traditional” families.
- Real wages are falling.
If this sounds like the latest news, consider The Way We Really Are – published in 1998.
A family historian and faculty at Evergreen State College, Stephanie Coontz states her goal is to
“complicate an issue that the consensus proclaimers argue is so self-evident only a fool would disagree”.
Beaver Clever’s All-American “breadwinner family” where father works away from the home and mother raises the children is only 150 years old. In the breadwinner family, women’s access to economic and political roles is restricted, but historically productive work was part of mothers’ work. Breadwinner men’s nurturing is restricted, but historically fathers were part of daily parenting of children.
Since World War II, government, corporations, and individuals formed an economic contract that produced a surge in higher education, wages, and job security. But that contract is disappearing. For example, real wages have been falling since 1972.
For Coontz, the economy is a moral issue. She believes it’s hypocritical to demand people follow the old family model without the old social contract.
Today’s teenagers’ dilemma: a loss of social roles.
With expanding years of education, youngsters are expected to remain children until 18 and beyond. Society has never before asked youngsters to put their adult life on hold for so long. Teenage pregnancy was never a problem in eras when most teenagers were married at the onset of puberty.
Throughout the book, Coontz uses personal stories to illustrate trends and studies, which adds a human touch to her scholarship. She also includes extensive notes and references, so despite its age the book is a good resource.
It’s no surprise that an older book doesn’t rank very high in sales, but reader reviews are good, averaging 4 out of 5. Disappointed readers felt:
- The title implied a survey of American families, but instead Coontz concentrates on single and two parent heterosexual nuclear families.
- Families led by gay parents are not discussed enough.
- Coontz does not say what sort of family is “best” or how “best” families could become the norm.