Families in the 21st Century

Gøsta Esping-Andersen

Citing valid as well as questionable evidence, both the media and social scientists have for decades now portrayed the family as an endangered species: evermore citizens opt for singlehood or less binding kinds of partnerships (like “living apart together”), marriages appear evermore unstable, and people appear reluctant to have children—witness historically record low (and persistent) fertility rates across much of Europe.

families-in-the-21st-century-webb.pdf 1.7 MB PDF

In fact, the ever-less family scenario is very much what the two theoretical perspectives that dominate demographic research would predict. Gary Becker identifies the gains from conjugal specialization (one in paid employment, the other in domestic work) as the key advantage of partnering. It follows that the changing economic role of women will undermine this utility. The rival framework, known as the Second Demographic Transition thesis, predicts the very same outcome but emphasizes the role of “postmodern values” which promote individualism and self-realization.

Chapter 1 in this book is dedicated to a close scrutiny of the evidence. With the most up-to-date evidence available, I examine long-run trends on all the key dimensions of family life. The dynamics I uncover seem to fit well with the family erosion thesis. But only up to a point. Since the mid-20th century, we do see a significant erosion of family formation on most dimensions—the divorce boom, the surge in single person households, the rise of cohabitation, and sharply falling marriage and fertility rates. But the most up-to-date evidence ends up contradicting the “less family” thesis on almost all points. We discover that what citizens define as the ideal number of children has not changed at all since the postwar decades. And in a non-trivial number of countries, Scandinavia par excellence, the family is clearly recovering. We see a rise in marriages, partnerships are increasingly more stable, and fertility has risen and is now close to matching actual preferences. These new trends are especially visible in the two most recent decades. Perhaps the single most revealing fact is that the return to “more family” is led by exactly the same social strata who, initially, spearheaded the “less family” scenario—namely the higher educated. In other words, it is now increasingly the lower social strata that epitomize the “less family” scenario.

What then explains this double rebound? Contrary to what Gary Becker predicted, the revolution of women’s roles appears now to be compatible with strong families, stable partnerships, and also with childbearing. This leads us to ask: Are some countries (like Sweden) now turning their back on “postmodern” values? Or put differently, in 21st century Europe it is countries like Italy and Spain which display family erosion most blatantly.

What primarily motivated me to write this book was my conviction that the reigning theories had it all wrong. The key driver behind contemporary family dynamics is neither the end of the housewife, nor postmodern individualism. Instead, as I argue, the dynamics are driven by the revolution of women’s roles.

In Chapter 2, I develop the central argument of my thesis, namely that the revolution will, in its early stages, indeed provoke fewer births, more singlehood, and less stable partnerships. The key turning point comes when both men and society at large adapt to women’s new roles. It is when a new family equilibrium emerges, becomes stable, and enjoys broad normative acceptance that we will see stronger inclinations to partner and marry, more enduring relationships, and also a return to
fertility levels that match citizens’ actual ideals. Chapter 2 is dedicated to empirical demonstrations of the validity of my “u-shaped” dynamics thesis, i.e. that the family is in fact resurgent.

I show that societies with advanced levels of gender egalitarianism (the Scandinavian in particular) boast not only more marriages and births, but also more stable partnerships. In comparison, in nations such as Germany, Italy or Spain, where conventional gender norms remain salient, this is where the “less family” scenario is most marked. What is particularly clear is that the new gender egalitarian family equilibrium requires not only that social institutions (such as the labor market and the welfare state) become “women friendly,” but also that men adapt within partnerships—in particular by equally sharing domestic chores and child rearing.

But what are the conditions that promote male adaptation? Why is male adaption now much more advanced in Scandinavia compared to, say, Germany? Indeed, if we turn the clock back to the 1960s we find that Danish men contributed less to domestic tasks than did their German counterparts. Analyzing the data there is one factor that stands out very clearly, namely any serious male adaptation occurs once women adopt full-time, life-long careers. To exemplify, the average Danish male partner contributes now about 43‒45 percent of all housework. As long as women remain prevalently part-timers (as in Germany or the Netherlands), conventional gender norms will largely persist.

The emergence of a gender egalitarian equilibrium is not written in stone. My analyses of the U.S. case are quite revealing in this respect. Once one of the forerunners of women’s role change, the gender revolution in the U.S. seems to have stalled mid-way. To exemplify, around one-fourth of American couples still adhere to the traditional male breadwinner-female housewife model. It is tempting to conclude that this is for lack of any genuine welfare state support for working mothers.

As argued above, the emergence of a stable gender egalitarian equilibrium necessitates adaptation at both the societal and partnership level. In the final part (Chapter 3), I shift the focus to children in general and child well-being in particular. There is a broadly shared assumption that women’s dedication to careers can be harmful for their offspring. This is not only because a full-time dedication to paid work limits the parents’ time dedication to children, but also that mothers will return home tired and stressed, thus affecting children adversely. I marshal all the evidence available and conclude that neither the new family, nor the gender revolution, has any negative effects on children, be it in terms of their cognitive development or educational progress.

This is certainly good news. But it comes with an important qualifier. What we observe is that parental time dedication has risen spectacularly among the higher educated strata (including among career mothers). Additionally, it is here where cognitively enriching parenting (such as reading and playing with the children) is particularly intensive. The same, however, has not occurred within the less educated strata where a more passive socialization model still tends to prevail. The upshot is a potentially alarming degree of polarity across the social spectrum in terms of children’s life chance potential.

And yet, the data for Scandinavia suggest that—at least so far—there are no signs of polarizing life chances among children. This, I conclude, is very much a bi-product of Scandinavia’s early and comprehensive welfare state adaptation to women’s new roles: generous parental leaves and high quality and universal child care centers in particular.

A review of the report was published in the journal Population and Development Review in December 2016:

But these reservations do not detract from the appeal of the book, which is a delight to read. The prose, and the use of tables and charts to motivate it, is excellent and the volume’s brevity is exemplary.

Read the full review here.

Another review of the report was published in the American Journal of Sociology in September 2017:

For those who would like to learn more about the ‘return of the family’ thesis of an emerging, egalitarian equilibrium, this clearly written, succinct book would be a very good place to start.

Abstract from the seminar on Oct 7, 2017 presenting the report, “Families in the 21st Century”


Women working full-time makes men more equal

That was one of the conclusions made my one of the world’s leading sociologists Gøsta Esping-Andersen at a seminar at SNS presenting his findings. Esping-Andersen is Professor of Sociology at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona.

During the seminar, he outlined how the role of the family has changed over time. Despite this, certain factors have remained stable since the 1940s, such as preferences for how many children to have.

Esping-Andersen described that many countries, particularly within Scandinavia, can be characterized as having higher levels of gender equality. He pointed out that despite this, it is only when women work full time that men begin to make adjustments and take on greater responsibility for unpaid household work. These countries have also seen a resurgence in family formation, where more and more couples stay together and have children.

At the same time, he noted an increased polarization: Among the educated, there is a higher probability of divorce, as well as for people living in countries which are less equal. Less educated men generally marry less often and have fewer children.

Karin Halldén, researcher at the Institute for Social Research at Stockholm University, raised the question of which comes first – the changes in attitude that creates demand for changes in policies and behavior, or is it rather policies that change the attitudes and behaviors?

Irene Wennemo, state secretary at the Ministry of Employment, mentioned that although families are increasingly remaining intact, the rates of sick leave among women has also risen. At the same time, sick leave rates among women in Sweden are higher than for men. Could it be that the burdens of full-time employment among working women are exhibiting themselves in sick leave numbers rather than in divorce numbers, Wennemo asked.