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From Institution To Choice: Family Change In West Germany Since The 1970s

In Germany and in Europe, as well as in the United States, the post-war decades were a golden age of marriage and the family, as marriage rates and then birth rates increased. In 1965, the average West German family had more than 2.3 children. After the mid-1960s, birth rates all over Europe, somewhat unexpectedly, dropped rapidly, and in West Germany, by almost half. (In East Germany this decline did not occur until the early 1970s and it was not as severe.) For the first time in the twentieth century (leaving aside war periods) marriage rates fell: Year by year an increasing share of unmarried young people did not get married. Dutch demographer Dirk van de Kaa (1987) in his booklet on Europe's second demographic transition, describes the behavioral shifts as follows: "from uniform to pluralized families and households," from "the king pair with a child to the king child with parents," from "preventive contraception to self-fulfilling conception." Others (e.g., Strohmeier 1988) refer to the individualization of the life cycle and its disentanglement from basic determining factors, such as social class and gender, as the social background of such shifts. This individualization led to an extension of the options available to formerly disadvantaged groups of the age cohorts born after the war, particularly for young women. Policy makers were more than surprised by these changes, and researchers, in fact, did not notice them. Although the birth rates in West Germany had dropped tremendously from 1965 to 1975, the second national government report on the status of the family, Zweiter Familienbericht, appearing in 1975, made no mention of this development (Bundesminister für Jugend, Familie und Gesundheit 1975). The first scientific congress of the family sociology section of the German Sociological Association took up the issue only in 1985. Such (somewhat deliberate) neglect of obvious population trends by policy makers and social scientists had reasons that go back to the Nazi period (1933–1945).

Apart from war times and post-war periods, the bourgeois family had been the dominant German family pattern throughout the twentieth century. In the 1940s, U.S. sociologist Talcott Parsons labeled it the normal family. The normal family, consisting of a working father, a housewife mother, and children, was the living arrangement most suitable for the mobile life requirements of modern industrial societies.

After the secular fertility decline from an average of more than five children at the end of the nineteenth century, this family pattern was widespread and most common already in the 1930s. Within one decade after 1965, however, this model of the normal family had lost much of its popularity. For the first time since 1965, German families did not shrink in size but in numbers. After 1965 an increasing share of the young birth cohorts of women would remain childless throughout their lives.

Figure 1 shows that the proportion of women with two, three, or more children born throughout their lives are more or less the same as the cohorts from 1940 to 1965. The proportion of mothers of only one child, however, decreased from the older to the younger cohorts, whereas the proportion of permanently childless women increased, reaching values of about one-third in the youngest cohorts, which will most probably persist or even grow. Moreover, permanent childlessness in Germany varies by educational and social status, with more women in the higher status groups remaining childless.

The fertility decline after 1965 (unlike previous decades) is no longer an indication of the reduction of fertility in a predominantly married adult population. On the contrary, it is an indication of a profound de-institutionalization of the family. The FIGURE 1
Completed Fertility of Women born 1940–1965.
reasons are all related to the changing life situations and life chances of young women: individualization of the life cycle and pluralization of life style. The 1960s, in the West, finally brought equality in the legal status of men and women (for example, with the right of a woman to work outside the house without her husband's permission, which was only established in 1958). Moreover, the 1960s and early 1970s brought an enormous educational expansion from which predominantly girls and young women profited. There was a general increase in the standard of living and growing economic prosperity, together with a cultural tendency towards liberalization, and finally there was access to safe contraception.

All these led to an extension of opportunities for women, which, in West Germany, unlike from other countries in Europe, was constrained by a traditional policy profile still enforcing the old normal family pattern. The result was that educated, highly qualified young women would rather abstain from family formation. In the last three decades of the twentieth century, the family in Germany has changed from an inevitable institution in everybody's life cycle to an object of rational individual choice, which, particularly among persons of higher educational status, appeared to be losing attraction.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaMarriage: Cultural AspectsGermany - The Rise Of The "bourgeois Family": The German Family In The Early Twentieth Century, From Institution To Choice: Family Change In West Germany Since The 1970s