Competing Perspectives In Social Demography Research Paper

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Two competing perspectives on the effect of postwar changes in men and women’s economic behavior on the family have characterized recent demographic research. Each primarily focuses on one of two fundamental theoretical pillars which underlay most demographic research on families in Western societies: (a) the economic implications for family behavior of an independent nuclear family system; and (b) the importance of sex-role specialization in marriage. This research paper will undertake an examination of each of these perspectives in terms of these theoretical underpinnings, how they are affected by changing economic behavior, and the implications of this for the emerging nature of the family.

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1. Overview

A number of major changes in marriage and family behavior have occurred in the West since the early 1970s. Age at marriage and marital instability have risen considerably while fertility has declined substantially (Blossfeld 1995, Mason and Jensen 1995, Oppenheimer 1994). The magnitude of these changes has fostered considerable debate about their determinants and consequences and what these imply for the future of the family. However, in most cases, the debate is not so much about major theoretical differences on the nature of the family but differences in which aspects of two long and commonly accepted underpinnings should be emphasized the most. One is that marriage as an institution, as well as marriages as functioning social forms, is based on sex-role specialization. Although there are variations in how this specialization argument is conceptualized, the general idea is that the husband’s role is largely economic while the wife’s lies in the care of the home and in the reproduction and socialization of the children.

The second theoretical underpinning to most discussions is that an independent nuclear family system is a long-standing feature of populations of Western European origin. Such a family system is characterized by husband–wife families which are economically independent and live separately in their own household, although a single aged parent might also have sometimes been included in the past. This is opposed to an extended family system which is usually characterized by joint family households consisting of several nuclear families. In general, historical demographic research has indicated that marriage and fertility behavior have often been quite different in populations with independent nuclear as opposed to joint family systems. In the former case marriage is contingent on the couple’s ability to be self-supporting and able to set up a separate household; in the latter, the economic ability of the household as a whole to absorb new members has tended to be more important. Since young people’s economic position is often precarious, the requirement of economic independence has historically led to somewhat later marriages and also to periodic fluctuations in marriage timing, depending on variations in economic circumstances. This has often resulted in substantial short-and long-term effects on fertility, especially in periods before the deliberate control of marital fertility became common.

This research paper focuses on two opposing positions regarding the effect of shifts in the economic behavior of men and women. One emphasizes sex-role specialization, arguing that the rising employment of women has been the major factor leading to the observed changes in marriage and family behavior because it has reduced specialization and hence permitted women to become economically independent of marriage, thereby reducing the gain to marriage. Assuming women’s employment is unlikely to decrease, the result will be a major and irreversible transformation of the family in modern industrialized societies.

The opposing position is that the family has not been transformed as much as the women’s independence argument maintains nor has women’s rising employment had a negative effect on marriage formation, although it undoubtedly mitigates against high fertility. On the other hand, there is some evidence that a deterioration in young men’s economic position has had an important effect on marriage and family behavior because it has seriously affected the ability of young couples to set up an independent household. If so, then the assumed irreversibility of present trends is open to question, although it is extremely unlikely that a return to postwar patterns of the 1950s to 1970s will occur.

These two alternatives do not exhaust the many possible reasons that have been proposed for changing family behavior, although they cover the major debates related to the effect of changes in economic behavior. Nevertheless, it is often the case that different explanations may be implicitly, if not explicitly, dependent on one or both of these positions. For example it has been argued that modernization and the rise of individualism is the major force behind the recent demographic changes. However, neither men nor women can be autonomous individualists if they are still economically dependent on traditional marital and kinship ties.

2. Independent Nuclear Family System

Given the assumption of sex-role specialization, demographic research on marriage and family behavior in independent nuclear family systems in preindustrial and early industrial populations has tended to focus primarily on the economic position of men, although there has long been a general recognition that women could help facilitate the formation of a marriage via earnings before marriage. In farming communities, marriage was often considerably delayed as the heirs had to wait for the father to die or retire before they inherited the property and with it the means of marrying. Even where leasing rather than owning land was the rule, as in England, there were often extensive delays until a man could save enough to lease a farm and set up a household. The effect of this pattern on marriage timing—and hence on fertility in historically noncontracepting populations—was often substantial with high proportions not marrying until their thirties and relatively substantial proportions never marrying (Arensberg and Kimball 1968, Goldstone 1986).

With the growth of wage labor in the cities and on the farms as industrialization progressed, young men could much more easily become economically independent at a relatively young age. This promoted a reduction in the age at marriage, although offsetting factors were the need to save up to establish an independent household and prior obligations to contribute to the parental household, especially if one or both parents had died or were incapacitated in some way. In general, economic development also increased the sensitivity of young men’s economic position to business cycles and structural changes in the economy. Recessions or depressions reduced marriage propensities, especially among the young, and recoveries led to sharp rises in rates. Moreover, the structural changes in the economy associated with economic development changed the skill levels and types of skills demanded of workers. This has placed an increasing premium on education and technical training in modern industrial societies which has, in turn, postponed the full-time entry of young people into adult-level employment and, with it, entry into marriage and the achievement of the degree of economic stability usually considered necessary for starting to raise a family.

2.1 Role Of Relative Cohort Size

Postwar analyses of the influence of men’s economic position on marriage formation and fertility was initially dominated by the work of Richard Easterlin who hypothesized that fluctuations in relative cohort size had a major impact on young men’s labor market position, thereby affecting marriage timing and marital fertility (Easterlin 1987). Thus, Easterlin argued that the postwar baby boom, such as the US experienced in the early postwar period, was largely caused by the favorable economic position of the small depression cohorts entering the labor market at that time. This encouraged them to marry earlier and have more children than previous cohorts. However, the relatively large cohorts they produced crowded the labor market, negatively affecting their lifetime earnings. This led to postponed marriage and childbearing, lower completed fertility, and greater marital instability. In addition, more wives would be working to compensate for their husband’s poorer economic position. The result was smaller birth cohorts in the next generation—the baby bust cohorts—who would be in a much more favorable relative labor-market position. According to the theory, this, in turn, should lead once again to earlier marriage and childbearing, somewhat higher fertility, increasing marital stability, and the slowing of the growth in married women’s employment. In short, the theory posited a self-perpetuating cycle.

The relative cohort size argument ran into empirical difficulties as research in the 1980s showed that postwar marriage and fertility fluctuations were largely period rather than cohort driven, i.e., fluctuations in demographic rates occurred simultaneously for numerous birth cohorts, regardless of cohort size. Moreover, the theory essentially accepted the premise that marriage is based on sex-role specialization. Women’s labor-market behavior was considered to vary primarily in response to men’s earnings position rather than in response to women’s own employment opportunities, independent career goals, or family cycle variations in economic needs. However, women’s employment continued to rise rapidly throughout the postwar period, regardless of variations in cohort size. As a result, the focus of research interest began to shift to the familial consequences of the transformation of women’s economic roles. Moreover, since the concern with the economic position of young men had become so closely identified with the relative cohort size argument, interest in men’s changing economic position flagged for a number of years while the research focus shifted to analyzing the effect of women’s rising employment.

3. Sex-Role Specialization

At the same time that relative cohort size and hence male-oriented explanations of changes in marriage and family behavior began to lose favor, the continuing rapid rise of married women’s employment has seemed to provide a ready explanation for the ongoing changes in marriage and family behavior. Hence, the theoretical emphasis shifted from a concern with the ability to set up and maintain an economically independent household to the critical importance of sex-role specialization for family formation and cohesion.

While it has only recently taken center stage as an explanation of changes in marriage and family behavior, a long-standing and influential tradition in the social science literature is the importance of differentiated sex roles for a stable marriage system. In the early postwar period this idea was emphasized by Talcott Parsons (1949) who argued that sex-role segregation was a functional necessity for marital stability and even for the viability of society itself. More recently, this same theme has been elaborated somewhat differently in the economic theory of marriage by Gary Becker. In an argument very similar to one Durkheim made over a century ago, Becker maintains that the major gain to marriage lies in the mutual dependence of spouses, each of whom specializes in certain functions—the woman in domestic production (and reproduction), the man in market work. Marriage then involves trading the fruits of these different skills. However, in response to economic growth and the rising wages it produces, women’s market work also rises. The result is that women become less specialized and, as their earnings approach those of potential mates, more economically independent, leading, in turn, to a decline in the desirability of marrying or of staying married as well as the desirability of high fertility.

Not all scholars necessarily agree with Becker’s argument in its entirety. Nevertheless, an economic independence argument of one sort or another has had wide appeal among sociologists as well as economists and is currently one of the major contenders in trying to explain recent marriage and family trends in the United States (Cherlin 1992, Oppenheimer 1997). One reason is that the model seems to have tremendous face validity. Not only does the notion of specialized sex roles fit in with long-held views of how the traditional family historically functioned, but the rapid changes in marital behavior appeared to have followed very closely upon the rapid rise in married women’s employment, especially that of young women. Moreover, the theory has the elegance of simplicity, yet it can apparently explain a wide variety of complex changes and differentials in marriage and family behavior—from delayed marriage to nonmarriage, marital instability, nonmarital cohabitation, female-headed households, declining fertility, and so forth. Nevertheless, the independence hypothesis has also run into a number of serious theoretical and empirical problems.

3.1 Mismatches

One problem the theory has encountered is that there are number of mismatches between the phenomena it claims to explain and the behavioral changes that are actually occurring. First, the independence hypothesis is essentially a theory of nonmarriage for it argues that if, by their own endeavors, women can achieve approximately the same income as a prospective spouse there is not much to gain by marrying and specializing in home production. However, so far, while there has been a considerable increase in delayed marriage, as yet there is little evidence of a substantial rise in nonmarriage (Oppenheimer 1994, Blossfeld 1995). For example, in the United States although white women reaching age 20–24 in 1980 were more likely to be single than earlier cohorts at that age, by the time they were 35–39 in 1995 just under 10 percent were still never married, below that for late nineteenth century cohorts who were presumably living in a ‘traditional’ family system. Hence one reason for the apparent support for the hypothesis is due to a serious confounding of delayed marriage with nonmarriage in the statistics. Moreover, to date, there has also been little effort to articulate how the independence argument could lead to delayed instead of nonmarriage.

A major difficulty in assessing the outcome of recent marriage trends lies in the recency of the trends and the necessity of waiting 20 years or more before one can accurately determine whether there actually will be a significant rise in nonmarriage. Efforts to estimate the future proportions never marrying are often misleading because they typically use the current behavior of older people as a guide. However, during a period of rapid timing shifts, the current behavior of somewhat older people, who are the relatively sparse and atypical remains of much earlier marrying cohorts, is often a particularly poor guide to the future behavior of the much larger and less select group of younger people who have been delaying marriage in more recent years.

A second kind of mismatch lies in using the family behavior of the 1950s and 1960s in the US (and somewhat later in Europe) as typifying the traditional family patterns when sex-role specialization prevailed; compared to this, the large subsequent changes in marriage and family behavior certainly appear to represent a major retreat from marriage and the family. However, this was the baby boom era when fertility was unusually high compared to the previous 50 years; age at marriage was unusually low—far lower than at the turn of the century—and, in the US at least, even marital disruption was somewhat less likely than in previous years. In short, this benchmark was highly atypical historically and unrepresentative of the supposedly ‘traditional’ family. Hence using it as a benchmark has led to a considerable exaggeration of the extensiveness of the subsequent break with historically traditional patterns and of the historical origins of many recent trends.

There is still another type of mismatch characteristic of a theory which posits that the stability of the family is founded on women specializing in home production. The proposed model seems strangely out of tune with the needs and characteristics of modern societies. Much of the specialized home production of women in the past was devoted to bearing and rearing children who never survived to adulthood. For women to be equally occupied in contemporary low-mortality societies would result in large families. However, even moderate family sizes in a low-mortality society lead to rapid population growth. Moreover, couples do not just want to produce children per se, they want to produce children like themselves—that is, they are interested in social, not just biological reproduction. But the cost of social reproduction is high in a society where increasingly substantial and lengthy investments in human capital for each child are required. Hence, high fertility is usually not a realistic option for most people in modern industrial societies. With low fertility, however, the female specialist would not be doing anything highly productive for much of her life. In short, specialization in home production appears to be a rather anachronistic institutional role for women in industrial societies.

3.2 Empirical Status Of The Independence Hypothesis

Much of the empirical work on the women’s independence hypothesis has not supported it. At any given time, empirical analyses show that indicators of women’s economic independence have not generally had a negative effect on marriage formation. For example, under an independence argument, better educated women should be more economically independent of marriage; however, microlevel regression analyses show that, once school enrollment is taken into account, they have a higher rather than a lower propensity to marry.

The empirical work on marital dissolution is more mixed. Some studies have found evidence of an independence effect, whereas others have not. There are a number of possible reasons for these conflicting findings. A major one is that the measurement of women’s economic independence is difficult and inconsistent across studies. Some studies use absolute income while others use some measure of relative income. While the hypothesis implies that the relative earnings of wives should be the important factor and hence should be directly modeled, using the ratio of wives’ to husbands’ income alone can lead to ambiguous results. The wife’s earnings in some families may be higher than in others, reflecting a better labor market position and, consequently, indicating a greater financial independence of her husband. However, the ratio could be higher because the husband’s earnings are low compared to other couples, while the wife herself may also be in a very weak labor-market position.

A second problem that is more likely to occur in analyses of marital dissolution than marital formation is the greater difficulty of determining the appropriate causal direction. Wives who are more extensively employed in one year may be more likely to separate the following year—but not necessarily because they are more economically independent. Instead, their marriage may have already been in trouble, causing them to increase their labor-market involvement in anticipation of a marital breakup—the reverse causal direction than that hypothesized.

3.3 Coping With Risk And Change

Although rarely considered in explications of the theory, historical research on independent nuclear families indicates that extreme sex-role specialization in marriage is essentially a high-risk and inflexible family strategy unless accompanied by supplementary support mechanisms (Oppenheimer 1994). Even with such supports, specialization often entailed considerable individual and social costs. An inherent problem is that the temporary or permanent loss of one specialist in a family can mean that functions vital to the well-being of the complementary specialist and children are not being performed. Husbands fathers can die or become ill or disabled; they can lose their jobs and have difficulty finding another one; they could desert the family for a variety of reasons or become an alcoholic; and so on. The result is that the family is left without its major source of income. Except for employment-related shifts, there are similar problems involving the wife-mother specialist. In that case, there could be no one to take care of the children or the home. Specialization may be a feasible strategy in a large extended family household where no particular individual is indispensable because of the redundancy in personnel that can characterize such a system. However, for independent nuclear families and their individual members, specialization entails considerable risks.

Extreme sex-role specialization is also not a very flexible way of dealing with the varying needs of nuclear families over their developmental cycle. Since individuals’ consumption needs and productive capabilities vary markedly by age, a basic feature of nuclear families is that the ratio of consumers to producers, and hence the family’s level of living, can vary substantially over the family’s developmental cycle. Hence, specialization involves a potentially serious inflexibility in dealing with changes in both a family’s internal composition as well as the stresses posed by its environment.

The large literature on family history in Western societies indicates that a variety of strategies were developed to maintain economic stability over the family’s developmental cycle and in the event of the temporary or permanent loss of specializing parents (Goldin 1981, Haines 1979, Rowntree 1922, see Oppenheimer 1994 for a review). In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries these strategies usually involved utilizing the productive labor of children, daughters as well as sons. The evidence also indicates that utilizing the labor of one’s children could exact substantial costs. A sufficient number of children old enough to make an economic difference was generally not available until the middle or later stages of the family cycle. Families who temporarily or permanently lost the contribution of the father early in the family cycle were not greatly helped by such a strategy. If the mother was lost when the children were young, the family might break up with children being parceled out among relatives or even going to orphanages. In general, this economic reliance on one’s offspring often led to a pattern of ‘life cycle poverty’ where periods of poverty and comparative plenty alternated over the life cycle of workers. Another well-known disadvantage to the extensive employment of children to supplement their family’s income was that it tended to discourage schooling and hence had a negative effect on children’s adult socioeconomic status.

Even aside from the drawbacks of using children’s work, the economic advantages of this strategy were eventually bound to decline during industrialization as the adult labor force became more skilled and hence the relative economic contribution unskilled children could make declined. This suggests that other equilibrating mechanisms were likely to develop. One mechanism may be governmental social support systems. At the family level, however, from a historical perspective, the rise in married women’s employment might be viewed as a functional substitute for the work of their children, facilitating the more extensive schooling of the next generation and thereby fostering upward intergenerational social mobility. In addition, wives’ employment is not limited to the later stages of the family’s developmental cycle and wives, being adults, and usually having educational attainments roughly similar to their husbands, can command a much higher wage than unskilled children could. Moreover, recent research indicates that wives’ earnings are currently playing an important role in offsetting the less favorable earning position of their husbands (Levy 1998). It seems likely, then, that wives’ employment could be a source of cohesion in marriages; in difficult times, a helpmate may be of much greater value than a complete economic dependent.

Even aside from wives employment during episodic periods of an increased need for additional income, wives who work regularly may also increase the interdependence of spouses. Two-earner families where the couple pool their resources are families whose level of living is based on their combined income. Even when the income contribution of each spouse is equal, given economies of scale, neither partner could live as well on his/her own or save and invest as much. Hence, instead of the asymmetric dependence of the wife which is characteristic of complete specialization, there is a symmetric dependence where each spouse depends on the other to maintain living standards. What this may also indicate is that the combined income of the two-earner family has come to form the social standard rather than the husband’s income alone. To the extent this is the case, it becomes increasingly difficult for single earners and married couples with a more traditional division of labor to achieve the same level of living as the two-earner family. Hence, the mutual dependence of the two earner family may not only contribute to their own gain to marriage but may also reduce the relative gain to being single and to marriages characterized by a specialized division of labor.

In sum, it is unclear that specialization is the only, or even the optimum, method of creating cohesion in marital relationships in modern industrial societies. The specialization model itself seems highly problematic and women’s rising employment may actually be promoting a more collaborative model of marriage.

4. Rising Economic Inequality

Given the empirical and theoretical limitations of the specialization model of marriage, research attention has been returning once again to the role of economic difficulties in setting up and maintaining an independent nuclear family. While the effect of relative cohort size earlier dominated research in this area, the more recent focus is on such issues as changing economic structure, chronically high unemployment rates (particularly among young adults), and rising earnings inequality (again especially among the young but also among the moderately-to-less educated as well). These analyses have also returned to the question of men’s changing economic position which had been neglected for quite some time. Research in this area is still in its early stages but some of the major questions to be addressed are: (a) whether, how, and why young men’s labor-market position affects cohabitation and marriage and what difference socioeconomic differentials make; (b) and whether economic changes in a society are likely to have had an important impact on young people’s economic position and have thereby influenced changes in their marital behavior.

Virtually all recent research has shown that men who are more likely to be working full-time year-round, had higher current earnings, and/or greater future career prospects were more likely to marry in any given short time interval (Clarkberg 1999, Huinink 1995, Oppenheimer 1997, Oppenheimer et al. 1997). Some research in this area has also started to look at the role of economic factors in the formation of cohabiting unions and this indicates that here too, some level of economic stability is important, although apparently not as much as for marriage formation (Bracher and Santow 1998, Clarkberg 1999). Oppenheimer (1988) has theoretically and empirically elaborated on these issues in a variety of ways. First, she has conceptualized the transition to work as a career entry process rather than a step, which was more commonly the approach in previous life-course analyses. This change in approach emphasizes that embarking on a relatively stable occupational career takes time, during which a young man is in a relatively ‘immature’ career state. One aspect of career immaturity directly impeding the formation of an independent household is relatively low income; however, another is uncertainties regarding what kind of stable employment may eventually be achieved, when this may occur, what lifestyle the individual may ultimately expect or desire, and so forth. Such uncertainties can impede mate selection and affect the individual’s own desirability as a prospective marriage partner. Hence, career immaturity is not only likely to foster delayed marriage for economic reasons but for social-psychological ones as well. Second, viewing the transition to work as a process expands the emphasis beyond the effect of career immaturity at any single point in time to the length of time it takes to achieve some career stability and the cumulative impact this will have on marriage timing. The delaying effect of only a modest effect of career instability in any given year, for example, may nevertheless have a large cumulative impact if the instability persists over many years. Moreover, this approach is well suited for examining how the length and difficulty of career development could vary substantially among different groups and over time as well, thereby facilitating analyses of socioeconomic differentials in marriage timing and trends in marriage behavior.

Using 12 years of an American longitudinal survey of young people, Oppenheimer and her colleagues (1997) found that not only did a variety of indicators of career immaturity have a substantial effect in any given year on marriage formation, but that the cumulative impact was substantial when the career development process was followed over time. Moreover, there were large race–schooling differences in the length and difficulty of the career-entry process which, in turn, produced major differences in marriage timing. Because the analysis was limited to the young adult life course of young men born between 1957 and 1964, how much of the rise in delayed marriage over the past 25 years can be accounted for by career-development problems has yet to be directly examined. However, there has been a substantial and well-documented rise in inequality in the US since the 1970s, and this has had a particularly severe effect on moderately-to-less educated younger workers, suggesting that career entry difficulties may be playing an important role in these trends. In Western Europe there has been a substantial increase in persistent unemployment, especially among the young which also indicates that career-entry difficulties may be important in changing European marital behavior (Levy 1998).


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