The family in modern life

The idea that the family as an institution is somehow ‘disintegrating’ has become increasingly common. Nevertheless, most people (nine out of ten) still get married, and most marriages (seven out often) produce children. A larger percentage of people marry today than 100 years ago, and people appear to participate in family life as intensely as ever. Attempts have been made to come up with an alternative social unit in Communist countries, but although specific families may seem troubled or fragile, the family system generally has withstood every test.

The history of the family

The form of the family as we know it in our present-day society may be looked upon as a remnant of the ‘total family’ such as could be found in Europe in former days when society had a predominantly agrarian character.

Although there were various forms these families usually consisted of at least three generations who normally lived together within one household. Sometimes parts of these families had separate dwellings, but even if so, most activities would be shared. Relations were pre-eminently patriarchal: traditionally the eldest married male was accorded a great deal of authority.

Most individuals would spend the greater part of their lives within this ‘total family’. In those days all sorts of activities, many of which have now been released from the confines of the family, still had a place within family life. Because society was not able to provide all kinds of securities in the manner that we have now become used to, a strong organization within the family was the best basis for a safe and a secure existence because the better part of economic life also took place within the total family.^roduction mainly took place in the family business and in the same manner the professional knowledge of the trade was passed on. The production resources were normally collectively owned. Even to the present day there still exist large-scale total families in various forms in non-Western societies.

The modern family

In the industrialized world only the nucleus of the family remains – the parents and children – and in rare cases a single dependent grandparent. Life has become more secure, industrialization and urbanization are still in progress and social legislation has developed. This development has been the origin of the modern family.

This does not mean that the modern family is not an issue for discussion. It is argued that it continues to confirm and maintain to a great extent the aging role-patterns between the male and the female. On the other hand there are many that are of the opinion that for growing children there is no better alternative available than the unjustly much maligned modern middle-class family. The role of the present-day family is predominantly on the consumption and educational level whereas production takes place outside the family home. This divergence of consumption and education on the one hand and production on the other hand is reflected by the division of labour between the housekeeper and the provider. Although for a certain period of time, most people will be part of family life during their adult lives, there are several forms of the family that do not conform with the normal pattern.

Sometimes there is only one parent, a woman who wants to have a child by a man known or unknown to her (for example induced by artificial insemination), or a man who wants to raise a child by himself. Sometimes the children are raised by parents of the same sex. In these cases the word parent has not so much a biological but a social meaning. By far the greater proportion of Western women will have one or two children. The reduction in size of the family is mainly the result of the effectiveness of modern contraceptive methods, in particular the Pill, and of a mitigation of the anti-abortion legislation: in the industrialized world one in five pregnancies is terminated by means of an abortion.