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American Families Over the Last Fifty Years

Updated on October 21, 2011

Over the past fifty years, American families have changed drastically as a result of having to adapt to technological advances, economic fluctuations, and social trends. The most notable changes, when discussing a typical “family”, are: the number of people living in “family households” or tradition nuclear families has decreased, women are having less children in their lifetime, wives are now more likely to work outside of the home, and those who do live in family households have a less stable family dynamic, for example, there are far more stepchildren, former in-laws, etc.

Each and every person has their own opinion of what a family is. This is obviously due to the fact that not every family is exactly the same. Being that each human being has his or her own idea of “family”, it is fair to say that not many people have an accurate understanding of exactly what a “typical” family is. In the United States, it is hard to pinpoint qualities of a “typical” family. Being the diverse country that the United States is, families vary by race, religion, economic status, age, and many other factors. However, in the last fifty years there have been noticeable family changes in the United States.


Today, fewer people live in a traditional nuclear family, which is quite the opposite of people alive half-way through the 20th century. The more recent trend of adults living alone or not with a “family” can be associated with the higher divorce rate, adults waiting longer before they decide to get married, and most obviously by the widowhood commonly seen at older ages. “In a particularly dramatic shift away from traditional nuclear family living, families maintained by never-married women increased tenfold over the past two decades, rising from 248,000 in 1970 to 2.7 million in 1988” (Wetzel 2). Young-adults waiting a longer period of time before marriage ties into the fact that women today, on average, have less children in their lifetimes. Also, they are choosing to have children later in life. “Consequently, the average size of families today is smaller than it has ever been before. The nation’s total fertility-rate—the number of children the average woman would be expected to bear in her lifetime—has been below the replacement level since 1972” (Wetzel 1). The roles of women have shifted significantly as well, especially post-WWII. Wives are now more likely to work outside of the home, regardless of whether they have children or not. Other interesting family changes include: The number of families headed by single mothers has increased 25% since 1990, to more than 7.5 million households, the number of single fathers has increased, now heading over 2 million families, and interestingly, for most of the past decade, about one-third of all babies were born to women out of wedlock, compared to 3.8 % in 1940. (Wetzel)

If our society is to survive, the importance of intimate relationships, family policies, and changing family dynamics in general, cannot be taken for granted. People of all walks of life live in families. Hopefully America as a whole can use this “common ground”, not only to advance the social innovations of the 21st century, but also to further enhance the ideals of equality and basic human rights that this country was founded upon. Over the next century, hopefully the word family, and what it is used to describe, remain an essential institution of our nation. Even the economic well-being of America relies heavily upon “the American family”. Families are at the core of production, saving, and consuming. Children should have families to help them mature in the best possible way: a way that will not only ensure that they will enjoy their life more as an adult, but also help make America a better place to live. Families are mainly responsible for the “nurturing” and education of the future leaders of this country. The decreasing rate of nuclear families in the last 25 years is not helping!

Works Cited

Wetzel, James. "American Families: 75 Years of Change." (1990): 1-2. Web. 15 Sep 2010



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    • MartieCoetser profile image

      Martie Coetser 

      6 years ago from South Africa

      Interesting changes regarding nuclear families. However, I can't help but remember a time in history when most women were nuns or beguines and millions of children were orphans.

    • cyoung35 profile image

      Chad Young 

      6 years ago from Corona, CA

      Hi Glassviage, I agree there are a lot of people who just don't want to make the effort. I have to say I am always there for my children even when it puts me out of my way or my normal routine. If there was a medical or money issue keeping them from celebrating the purchase of your home that is different.

    • glassvisage profile image


      6 years ago from Northern California

      It's funny that I stumble upon this today... I was bemoaning he fact that none of my family wants to celebrate the purchase of my first home because they said they didn't have time or it was out of the way... It hurt my feelings but my friends say that's how our culture is today...but I will fight that trend! :) Thanks for posting!

    • tirelesstraveler profile image

      Judy Specht 

      7 years ago from California

      Completely agree that relationships need to be taken seriously. My mother worked all my growing years. My third grade teacher yelled at her because I didn't go home for lunch. It would have been a long walk, but many of the kids went home for lunch.

      20 years later when I told my son to come home for lunch when he was in 1st grade I got a call from the school telling me I had to check him out. Ours house is next to the school. I could watch him walk from his class to the house. Everything has changed.

    • cyoung35 profile image

      Chad Young 

      9 years ago from Corona, CA

      Those are some amazing numbers. Me personally, I come from a home where my mother stayed home until I was high school age and I think that helped guide us in the right direction. Let's hope this is just a cycle and it's only going to get better. I really enjoyed reading the hub.


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