Earlier this year, Isaac Withers was one of 300 hundred people who attended the Vatican Pre-Synod of Young People, speaking with Pope Francis on the issues that his generation and younger face. Inspired by this incredible trip he has written an eight-part series of articles highlighting these challenges and sharing how we, the Church, can support and nurture this young generation. We are excited to present the fourth of his articles here. You can find the other parts of his series at the bottom of this page.
In the cultural conversation about the modern family you can very quickly come into contact with some alarming phrases, like the ‘breakdown of the family’ or the ‘crisis of marriage’. This language is typically also accompanied by a nostalgic image of what family was like in the past.
Andrew J. Cherlin, professor of sociology at John Hopkins University addresses this depiction of the family of the past in his compelling book ‘The Marriage Go-Round’. Speaking of the American generations of the late 1940s and 1950s who had lived through the Great Depression and the World Wars, he writes that ‘exhausted by hard times and war, they turned inward toward home and family. Their early and nearly universal marriages and their large families produced the famous baby boom. Sometimes celebrated as the “greatest generation,” they were at least the most distinctive. Neither their own parents before them nor their children after them married as young or had as many children. We sometimes think of the 1950s as the era of the traditional family, perhaps because that’s as far back as our collective memory now reaches. But in truth it was the most unusual time for family life in the past century.’
But there is no denying that cultural norms around marriage and family have changed significantly since the fifties. In the UK, the introduction of The Divorce Reform act in 1969 which introduced the ‘no-fault divorce’ normalised divorce in an unprecedented way. In the figure below you can see the number of marriages and divorces of opposite-sex couples in the UK from 1950 to 2016, sourced from the Office for National Statistics, and it is clear how divorce rates seem now to be running parallel with marriages at around half the number. How this shake-up has affected younger generations is now becoming clearer.
There are plenty of thinkers out there asking whether the days of the Simpsons-style nuclear family are over. Well, family situations have certainly become more varied as University of Maryland sociologist Philip Cohen, shows in his 2014 book ‘The Family: Diversity, Inequality, and Social Change’. Cohen created a great visual for how this diversity of family has manifested itself since 1960 in the US. He calls this chart the ‘peacock’s tail’.
(Sources: the 1960 US Census and the 2012 American Community Survey, with data from IPUMS.org.)
Whilst the shift looks drastic, on closer inspection you can see that the 80% of families with married parents (if you ignore who is employed) in 1960 only drops to around 60% in 2012, however the more unique kinds of families that used to make up 18% of families now make up around 40% of them. Significantly, never-married mothers who did not even make up 1% in 1960 now make up 11%, and single fathers now take care of as many children as grandparents.
On this diversity of family, Cohen says that ‘in 1960 you would have had an 80% chance that two children, selected at random, would share the same situation. By 2012, that chance had fallen to just a little more than 50-50. It is really impossible to point to a ‘typical’ family.’ And though same-sex couples receive a lot of public attention in the debate around modern family, they do not register on Cohen’s chart because he found that much fewer than 1% of children belong to such a family.
This ‘peacocking’ of family types makes sense as the result of a cultural shift, which most probably finds its epicenter in the ‘sexual revolution’ of the 1960s. Anecdotally, Professor Andrew J. Cherlin speaks of this long term cultural shift in ‘The Marriage Go-Round’.
‘In 1971 I returned home and, during dinner one night, told my parents that I was living with my girlfriend. They were stunned. … By the time my daughter reached young adulthood, at the dawn of the millennium, I would have been surprised had she not lived with her boyfriends before marrying him. In her generation, cohabiting before marriage became the norm and premarital sex nearly universal. Having children without marrying – a shameful occurrence in the 1950s – became commonplace. … Even in midlife, choices continue: Am I satisfied with my marriage? Should I consider ending it? If I am divorced, should I marry again? The stakes are high because we place so much emphasis on having a successful personal life, even as the meaning of success becomes less evident.’
The question of what this rise in divorce and change in family types has had on children is an important one, and studies show that it is not just divorce that has a destabilising effect. In ‘The Marriage Go-Round’, Cherlin builds the case that, ’while some observers focus on marriage, others on divorce, and others on unmarried parents, I believe that what truly makes American families different is the sum total of these differences – frequent marriage, frequent divorce, more short-term cohabiting relationships. Together these factors create a great turbulence in American family life, a family flux, a coming and going of partners on a scale seen nowhere else.’What is the experience of family flux like for a child? Cherlin, when studying remarriages, expected to find that when lone parents remarried, their children’s wellbeing improved, as would make financial sense, but what he discovered surprised him.
‘… children whose parents have remarried do not have higher levels of well-being than children in lone-parent families. Their levels of behaviour problems, for example, are similar to those of children in lone parent families and higher that those children in two-biological-parent families. While many explanations have been suggested, the most common is that the addition of a stepparent increases stress in the family system at least temporarily’. In the aftermath of the breakup of a marriage, Cherlin argues that parents and their children ‘establish agreed-upon rules’ and new roles, in which ‘a daughter may become a special confidante to her mother, or a son may assume new responsibilities … performing other tasks his father used to do. Then into that system, with its shared history, intensive relationships, and agreed-upon roles, walks a parent’s new live-in-partner.’ With a constant shifting of roles and rules, it is totally understandable why a child would be disorientated by this, especially on top of the emotional weight of their parents divorce.
Studies would also show that children are spending more time in the home than ever before but paradoxically tend not to know their parents better than previous generations. In keeping with her findings that young people now generally have a slow life strategy Jean M Twenge writes, ‘One of the ironies of iGen life is that despite spending far more time under the same roof as their parents, today’s teens can hardly be said to be closer to their mothers and fathers than their predecessors were. “I’ve seen my friends with their families—they don’t talk to them,” Athena told me. … Like her peers, Athena is an expert at tuning out her parents so she can focus on her phone. She spent much of her summer keeping up with friends, but nearly all of it was over text or Snapchat. “I’ve been on my phone more than I’ve been with actual people,” she said. “My bed has, like, an imprint of my body.” In this, too, she is typical. The number of teens who get together with their friends nearly every day dropped by more than 40 percent from 2000 to 2015.’
So what has this combination of destabilizing factors done to children developing in them? Well, in ‘Gen Z’ , (the fantastic research carried out by the Barna Group and Impact the 360 Institute, published this year), they presented young people with a blank space in the statement ‘my _ is very important to my sense of self’. Was family the number one result as you would probably assume/hope? Nope, their highest response was ‘professional/ educational achievement’. Family in fact, came in fifth, also after hobbies/pastimes, gender/sexuality and group of friends. This is a statistical overhaul when compared to the three previous generations of Boomers, Gen X and Millennials, as family was always number one for them by a clear margin, and yet in one wave it goes from first to fifth.
So how have we produced a generation so fixated on success that it is core to their identity, and so disenfranchised with the idea of family that it is an afterthought? Julie Lythcott- Haim, former Dean of freshmen and undergraduate advising at Stanford University, recounts her time serving on the University’s mental health task force from 2006 to 2008, in a great piece for Slate. ‘Often brilliant, always accomplished, these students would sit on my couch holding their fragile, brittle parts together, resigned to the fact that these outwardly successful situations were their miserable lives. … I heard plenty of stories from college students who believed they had to study science (or medicine, or engineering), just as they’d had to play piano, and do community service for Africa, and, and, and. I talked with kids completely uninterested in the items on their own résumés. Some shrugged off any right to be bothered by their own lack of interest in what they were working on, saying, “My parents know what’s best for me.”
The thrust of Lythcott-Haim’s argument is that parents are not properly equipping their children in terms of life skills but then are asking for so much of them when it comes to academics. However, her proof for this theory is not just anecdotal experience, she argues that recent data, like the 2013 survey from the American College Health Association of approximately 100,000 college students from 153 different campuses supports this. It reported that in the last twelve months, 84.3 percent felt overwhelmed by all they had to do, 60.5% felt very sad 57% felt very lonely, 51.3% percent felt overwhelming anxiety and 8.0 percent seriously considered suicide. As these symptoms are across all so many different campuses, Lythcott-Haim believes that the source of this anxiety is found in ‘some facet of American childhood itself.’
‘When parents have tended to do the stuff of life for kids—the waking up, the transporting, the reminding about deadlines and obligations, the bill-paying, the question-asking, the decision-making, the responsibility-taking, the talking to strangers, and the confronting of authorities, kids may be in for quite a shock when parents turn them loose in the world of college or work. They will experience setbacks, which will feel to them like failure. Lurking beneath the problem of whatever thing needs to be handled is the student’s inability to differentiate the self from the parent. … The research shows that figuring out for themselves is a critical element to people’s mental health. Your kids have to be there for themselves. That’s a harder truth to swallow when your kid is in the midst of a problem or worse, a crisis, but taking the long view, it’s the best medicine for them.’
Recently, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, the cardinal overseeing the Synod of Youth, Faith and Vocational Discernment said something intriguing when asked about all of the research that the Vatican had carried out. ‘Do you know who young people ask for the most? Their father and mother. It’s interesting – their parents. We know the family is in crisis, there’s separation, internal questions, but in our research we asked the youth who they wanted to be near them – it was their parents, then teachers and educators and finally the Church.’
In the context of all the turmoil and flux of multiple familial situations, the cardinal’s statement I think expresses the heart of the matter; young people crave a stable love from their parents, and many have had to go without that, adjusting to shifting roles within shifting units. Perhaps this is also why they are so determined to achieve, and why success is core to their identity, because at least in a professional sense they can stabilize themselves, and create stability for their future families.
Having concluded his research into the many kinds of modern families, Philip Cohen gives a note to policy makers suggesting that ‘different families have different child-rearing challenges and needs, which means we are no longer well-served by policies that assume most children will be raised by married-couple families’. In that vein, it is paramount that the Church acknowledges the new realities of family, but of course, that is what the Synod on the Family and the subsequent apostolic exhortation ‘Amoris Laetitia’ were all about. In it, Pope Francis writes ‘I thank God that many families, which are far from considering themselves perfect, live in love, fulfil their calling and keep moving forward, even if they fall many times along the way. The Synod’s reflections show us that there is no stereotype of the ideal family, but rather a challenging mosaic made up of many different realities, with all their joys, hopes and problems.’
The language of ‘living in sin’ still taints people’s understanding of the Church’s teaching on family and marriage, and what this disorientated generation needs to hear most of all about is that they are children of God, that He wants to be in familial relation to them and that that can be their greatest most meaningful source of stability and love.
‘For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.’ (Romans 8:14-17)
For further reading check out:
‘The Marriage Go-Round’ by Andrew J. Cherlin
‘The Family: Diversity, Inequality, and Social Change’ by Philip Cohen
‘Kids of Helicopter Parents Are Sputtering Out’ by Julie Lythcott-Haims
‘Amoris Laetitia’ by Pope Francis
‘Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?’ by Jean M. Twenge
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