“Demography Is Destiny”: Understanding the Changing American Family
Article first published online: 22 FEB 2011
© 2011 The Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues
Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy
Volume 11, Issue 1, pages 334–337, December 2011
How to Cite
Smith, T. E. (2011), “Demography Is Destiny”: Understanding the Changing American Family. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 11: 334–337. doi: 10.1111/j.1530-2415.2011.01232.x
- Issue published online: 15 DEC 2011
- Article first published online: 22 FEB 2011
2007 ). The Age of Independence: Interracial Unions, Same-Sex Unions, and the Changing American Family . Cambridge , MA : Harvard University Press . ISBN : 978-0-674-03490-7 ( $19.95 ).(
In this book, Rosenfeld proposes a new stage of development during the late teens and early twenties, the “independent life stage,” and he considers whether this unprecedented period of social independence has influenced the type of unions formed by young adults. Those familiar with the theory of emerging adulthood (Arnett, 2004) will recognize the parameters of the emergence of this life stage: increasing rates of college attendance, later age of marriage, and women's increased participation in the labor force. Rosenfeld's major contribution in this book is his discussion of how these changes in the course of young adulthood have been paralleled by a decrease in parental social control over young adults. This shift, he argues, has transformed the types of families that young adults create and has resulted in a tremendous growth in the number of transgressive couples (interracial, gay/lesbian) in the United States.
In the first four chapters, Rosenfeld deftly weaves together the history of the family in the United States, using census microdata from 1850 to 2000, information from the General Social Survey, and (somewhat sparingly) interview data from 28 transgressive couples. These chapters serve to contextualize the emergence of the independent life stage and also to make a compelling argument for the necessity of integrating the family into theories of social change. Chapter 5 conveys the crux of his argument, and this is where Rosenfeld's argument really shines, both for his use of multiple types of data and for the clarity of his explanations. Throughout this chapter, Rosenfeld compares census data for five types of couples: (1) heterosexual, same-race, married; (2) heterosexual, same-race, cohabitating; (3) heterosexual, interracial, cohabitating; (4) same-sex, same-race, cohabitating; and (5) same-sex, interracial, cohabitating. Drawing on these comparisons, he offers insight into the interrelated issues of family makeup, educational history, geographic mobility, and urban residence. His use of participants’ interview data alongside census data is an excellent example of the effectiveness and power of mixed-methods research. The next three chapters take a largely historical look at changes in childrearing practices, changing attitudes, and the enormous impact that the legal argument of “privacy rights” has on our legal right to form consensual relationships with a partner of our choosing. Rosenfeld's final chapter draws parallels between the legal battles over interracial marriage and same-sex marriage and considers the future of marriage in the United States.
Rosenfeld is adept at shedding new light on U.S. history by reinterpreting historical periods to show their influence on the family. For example, in Chapter three, he considers family change during the industrial revolution and during the post-1960 period. He clarifies that although the industrial revolution resulted in notable shifts in household size, educational opportunities, and urbanization, it had no influence on the social control of the family over their young adult children. The strength of family government did not change until the 1960s, and it was this shift in power, Rosenfeld argues, that directly contributed to the rise of interracial and homosexual unions, as well as the rapid social change of the time. He notes that “[t]he conservative view that post-1960 changes in family life are a decisive break from the past is more correct than scholars have usually been willing to admit” (p. 183). Thus, he identifies this time period as the tipping point for understanding today's generational divide in attitudes about gay and lesbian couples.
“Demography is destiny” (p. 77) is a phrase favored by demographers and used by Rosenfeld as he describes the interrelationship between increasing numbers of interracial and gay/lesbian relationships and the liberalization of attitudes about such unions. Social psychologists will likely view this section as illustrating the power of contact theory (Allport, 1954) at the level of the population. Rosenfeld argues that “as the prevalence of nontraditional unions grows from zero to 1 percent, the rate of firsthand familiarity with nontraditional unions grows from zero to 10 percent” (p. 83). The take-away lesson from this portion of the book is that the greatest change in social exposure to new family forms—and the strongest backlash—occurs just as the transgressive families begin to become visible.
This recent book is, of course, situated against the backdrop of the current political struggle over how the United States will define marriage. While the case made for same-sex marriage is not identical to that for interracial marriage, Rosenfeld points out similarities in the legal arguments against both types of unions, and he clearly expects the path to legal recognition for same-sex marriages to follow the trail blazed by the fight for interracial marriage. In an oft-cited passage from his 2006 memoir, then-Senator Barak Obama wrote on his opposition to same-sex marriage, “… that in years hence I may be seen as someone who was on the wrong side of history” (p. 223). If demography is, in fact, destiny (and Rosenfeld has convinced me of the truth in this aphorism), Obama's comment will seem prescient. By Rosenfeld's estimation, “demographic metabolism” (p. 189)—the replacement of older birth cohorts by younger cohorts who have experienced the independent life stage—will continue to erode opposition to same-sex marriage and result in the legalization of same-sex marriage within the next few decades.
For me, and likely for other psychologists interested in social justice issues, Rosenfeld's description of the rise of the independent life stage and the corresponding change in American families, while compelling, is a little dissatisfying. Throughout the book, Rosenfeld takes a neutral approach to the changing nature of the family and offers no commentary on societal disapproval of transgressive unions. This neutrality, while likely preferable to many readers for its suggestion of objectivity, seems odd at times, especially following passages from his interviews with participants as they describe rejection at the hands of their families of origin. To describe only the demographic impact of familial disapproval (geographical moves away from rejecting families to more accepting environments), with no mention of the psychological impact of such treatment, seems to be a disservice to the participants who shared their presumably difficult stories. By passing on the chance to illuminate the experiences of interracial and gay/lesbian couples and to label their treatment unfair, Rosenfeld missed an opportunity to give his book greater emotional depth and to make a statement for social justice.
As the book closes, I was left with a sense of profound change in the nature of the family over the past 50 years—both the form of American families and the way that families raise their children—but with relatively little sense of how these changes took place. This is perhaps simply beyond the scope of social demography, but there are a number of potential avenues of connection between social justice movements and Rosenfeld's arguments that could be fruitfully explored. Although he touches on the first and second waves of feminist activism, the civil rights movement, and the gay liberation movement, the reader does not take away an understanding of the influence of these social justice movements on the emergence of the independent life stage and the corresponding change in attitudes about the family. For example, Rosenfeld notes the profound shift in the type of values mothers report wanting to instill in their children (from “strict obedience” and “loyalty to the church” in 1924 to “tolerance” and “independence” in 1978). He then connects this shift to changes in the parent–child relationship and notes the rise of interest in and awareness of child abuse in the 1960s and 1970s. These shifts were assuredly related to the social justice movements of the 1960s, and further analysis of these connections would have added greatly to Rosenfeld's argument.
Nevertheless, Rosenfeld's well-written, accessible account of the interrelationships between family governance, the emergence of the independent life stage, and the place of transgressive unions in the United States is fascinating. The Age of Independence will be appreciated by anyone interested in families, gay/lesbian relationships, interracial relationships, demography, or young adult development.
T. EVAN SMITH (email@example.com) is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Elizabethtown College. His research interests include gender development during adolescence and emerging adulthood, the experiences of GLBT youth, and essentialist and constructionist understandings of gender and sexuality.
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