Children have always been and continue to be a central part of the U.S. family. Despite the profound changes that have occurred since World War II with respect to patterns of marriage and divorce, the vast majority of young women (more than 90 percent) still expect to give birth to at least one child at some point in their lives (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1991a). This does not imply that patterns of childbearing (or fertility) have remained unchanged, however. In fact, with the exception of a brief but dramatic increase in fertility rates during the postwar "baby boom," family size has declined fairly steadily throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Cherlin 1981).
The most notable aspects of childbearing patterns in recent decades are the pace at which fertility declined during the 1960s and 1970s, and the fact that fertility rates reached an all-time low during this period. A number of factors contributed to this decline, including an increasing tendency by young couples to delay the start of childbearing, to have fewer children in total, or to remain childless altogether. In addition to the general decline in fertility rates, the context in which childbearing takes place also changed during this period, as the proportion of births occurring outside of marriage increased dramatically.
In addition to delaying the onset of childbearing, an increasing proportion of couples are choosing to have only one child or no children at all. It is still too early to tell what consequences the sustained low fertility levels of the 1970s and 1980s will have for completed fertility levels, because women who entered their childbearing years during that period are only now starting to complete their childbearing. However, the experiences of women who had their children toward the end of the baby boom and who have now completed their families lend some insight into what might happen in the future. For example, the proportion of women age fifty to fifty-four who had only one child increased slightly between 1985 and 1991, from 9.6 percent to 11.1 percent. The percentage of women in this age group who were childless also increased slightly during the late 1980s, from 8.4 percent in 1987 to 9.3 percent in 1991 (National Center for Health Statistics 1993b). This latter figure is expected to increase rapidly, however, and researchers have projected that the proportion of women who remain childless may reach as high as 25 percent among women who will be completing their childbearing early in the twenty-first century (Bloom and Trussell 1984).
Childbearing in the United States has become increasingly separated from marriage. Sexual activity outside marriage, particularly premarital sexual activity, has risen dramatically among women since the 1960s, and women are becoming sexually active at younger ages on average than ever before (National Center for Health Statistics 1987). These trends, coupled with the fact that women are delaying marriage and spending a smaller portion of their reproductive years in marriage, have led to an increase in the number and proportion of births that occur to unmarried women.
Changes in patterns of family formation and dissolution and childbearing have translated into profound shifts in family and household composition for children and adults. The family model prevalent in the 1950s of breadwinner-husband and homemaker-wife raising their own children together in their own home is increasingly being replaced by a mosaic of alternative family types, including single-parent families, remarried-parent or stepfamilies, married couples with no children, and unmarried couples with children (Ahlburg and De Vita 1992). In addition, households comprised of persons living alone or with nonrelatives are becoming increasingly common.
Perhaps more striking are changes that have occurred in the composition of the family groups themselves. The percentage of families with dependent children that are maintained by two parents declined since 1970. The proportion maintained by a single parent (either mother or father) more than doubled during this period, from approximately 13 percent in 1970 to just under 30 percent in 1990. Single-parent families are much more likely to be maintained by a mother than a father. Although this pattern is starting to change somewhat, even in 1990 the vast majority of single-parent families (87 percent) were maintained by women (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1991b).
What the rise in single parenthood means from a child's perspective is that an increasing number and proportion of children are spending at least part of their childhood with only one parent. In 1992, more than one-quarter of all children under eighteen years of age (representing a total of 17.6 million children) were living in a single-parent family, up from 9 percent (or 5.8 million) in 1960 (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1991b, 1993). These figures relate to living arrangements at a given point in time; however, the proportion of children who have experienced or will ever experience living in a single-parent home is somewhat higher. Based on trends in marital dissolution and non-marital fertility described earlier, researchers have estimated that the proportion of children expected to live in a single-parent household at some time before reaching adulthood will range between one-half and three-quarters (Bumpass 1984; Hofferth 1985). For some children this arrangement is only short-term, followed quickly by the parent's remarriage and the arrival of a stepparent; however, many children may spend a large part of their childhood years living with a single parent, because the parent either never remarries or experiences multiple marital disruptions (Sweet and Bumpass 1987).
Stepfamilies are also becoming much more prevalent in American family life, and it is important to keep in mind that children who are reported as living with two parents do not necessarily live with their biological parents
There is a great deal of uncertainty about what the future will bring for the family in the United States, as well as what the consequences of changes experienced thus far will be for individuals, family groups, and society at large. Demographic trends since the mid-1980s suggest a somewhat slower pace of change for the beginning of the twenty-first century. Furthermore, despite profound changes in its composition and function, the family continues to be highly valued in U.S. society, and the vast majority of young Americans expect to marry and have children at some point in their lives. Because the changes that have occurred have been so far-reaching, however, it seems unlikely that there will ever be a return to what Dennis A. Ahlburg and Carol J. De Vita referred to as the "seemingly well-ordered family world of the 1950s" (1992, p. 38). Hence it will be important to continue to focus efforts on developing a better understanding of the "new realities" of family life in the United States.
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STEPHANIE COONTZ (1995)
MARY BETH OFSTEDAL (1995)
REVISED BY JAMES J. PONZETTI, JR.