Millennial family values

Sociologist Stephanie Coontz on how American leaders have spent more time on the Clinton sex scandal than they have on issues that will affect the families of the future.

Published November 30, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

For the past few months, I've been getting calls almost daily from reporters assigned to develop stories around the concept "What the family will look like in the coming millennium." A typical example of the angle many editors are taking on the issue is a November Newsweek cover story headlined "Tomorrow's Child." The report, a puffy lifestyle forecast ("The child born in the year 2000 may face epidemics of previously unknown tropical diseases, but he also may be able to eat broccoli Jell-O instead of broccoli"), did include one expert's estimate that economic polarization among children will increase. But much more space was devoted to enthusiastic musings by "futurists" and trend-spotters about the educational and health technologies that will become available. Marketing consultant Faith Popcorn, the woman who added "cocooning" to our vocabulary, offered a scenario about as reassuring as her name: While mothers will continue to work outside the home, Popcorn predicted, toy manufacturers will turn out "mommy dolls" to keep the lonely latchkey children company. Other articles have speculated about cars that will warn commuting parents of traffic jams down the road and houses with Hal-like computers and interactive appliances that will match socks and make out shopping lists.

As a family historian, I've spent a lot of time and energy trying to convince people to abandon misplaced nostalgia about childhood and parenting, but inane optimism about the future is not exactly a useful alternative. Unfortunately, questions such as "What will the family of the future look like?" can only generate superficial answers.

There are two big problems with discussing what will happen to the family in the next millennium. The first is that it presumes there is such a thing as a typical family. American families are already extraordinarily diverse in their structure, racial-ethnic affiliation, economic security, age composition and gender roles. This diversity will surely increase in the next century. The second is that the question ignores the political and social choices that will affect the answer. We're not tracking long-range weather patterns here. What families will look like in the new millennium depends on decisions we make -- or fail to make -- right now.

There are some trends we can confidently project into the next few
decades, but the consequences of those trends are uncertain. We know for
sure that racial-ethnic diversity is here to stay. Will we find ways to
draw on the strengths of different cultural traditions or will we continue to scapegoat people who don't share the culturally and politically dominant values?

We also know that a majority of kids will spend some time growing
up in a single-parent home or a stepfamily. Will we keep wringing our
hands about "the breakdown of the traditional family" or figure out how to
help all parental figures -- including those not living in the same home and
those not biologically related to the child -- do a better job of raising
their children?

Right now 62 percent of women with children under 6 are in the
work force, most in full-time jobs. So we can be sure that a majority of
children will have mothers who work outside the home. Will we market
"mommy dolls" to these families or construct better parental leave policies and
high-quality child-care facilities? If economic inequality continues to rise, will we encourage affluent families to stock their security-guarded homes with private computer libraries or will we invest in public libraries, schools and parks?

We also know that families are being asked to care for both their
younger and elder members over longer periods of time than in the past,
and with fewer supports. Whereas children once contributed resources to the
household and were insurance for their parents' old age, today's parents
are increasingly investing in more years of education for their kids,
loaning them money for a house down payment or subsidizing them
at home while the children try to find a job that offers economic

At the other end of life, the elderly population is expected to
grow by 75 percent in the next 30 years. Already one in four people --
three times the proportion of a decade ago -- is giving 11 hours a week
of care to an aging relative. These obligations will only increase with the
aging of the population.

Meanwhile, given the present abandonment of health-care reform, we
can expect hospitals to continue releasing patients ever earlier, long
before they are capable of caring for themselves. As of 1997, 21 million
Americans were providing some kind of at-home care to a sick family
member or friend, up from 7 million in 1987. These numbers are also going to
grow, along with the stresses they add to already-busy lives, unless we decide
to invest in better health-care policies.

Trend-spotters can't tell us what the future will be for
families. What we need are trend-makers. Yet our political "leaders" and
opinion-makers have done little over the past year to work for a better
future for families. The Lewinsky scandal is the only "issue" that has
managed to hold their attention for more than a few days, despite overwhelming weariness with it from a public that continues to rank issues such as education as top national priorities.

While lawmakers sought all the details on sex, lies and videotapes, they overlooked the serious questions raised by conservative attempts to privatize Social Security and roll back the Earned Income Tax Credit, one of the few government policies that has been proven to reduce poverty and reward work at the same time. Yet these issues will have a much more profound impact on families of the future than the details of anyone's sex life.

As I write this essay, my husband is watching the impeachment hearings. Every time I walk through the TV room, I hear legislators pontificating about our revolutionary heritage, the need for equal treatment of all citizens and the responsibility of leaders to be honest with the public. Periodically, local news anchors break in with 30-second reports on the bombing of Baghdad or the seasonal public service announcements for toy drives or homeless shelters.

The disconnect between rhetoric and reality is heartbreaking. What about an honest discussion about a contradictory foreign policy that has us bombing Saddam while letting almost every other Middle East power suppress its Kurds and other
dissidents? How come the Judiciary Committee members' invocations of the "ideals"
of our forefathers does not include James Madison's argument that a virtuous
republic should strive to eradicate extremes of wealth and poverty? And
why doesn't the charge that Clinton is obsessed with polls rather than
principles focus on the fact that he ignored his own bipartisan panel's
politically unpalatable conclusion that distributing needles to drug
addicts would not increase drug addiction but save lives?

For that matter, how can legislators on either side of the impeachment issue congratulate themselves on "voting their conscience" when they have allowed 93 percent of all reductions in budget entitlements over the past two years to be borne by the poor? In a nation where the average CEO makes 326 times as much as the average factory worker and 728 times as much as the minimum-wage earner, why has America's extraordinary economic expansion during the last two years not even trickled down to America's impoverished children? And why, in one of the only six nations that do not have a national policy requiring paid maternity leave (out of 152 nations surveyed this year by the United Nations), are our leaders spending so much time on sex and semen stains?

Even the Lewinsky scandal needn't have been conducted on such a puerile level. It could have opened up thoughtful debate about what constitutes a privacy worth defending and what is a secret worth exposing. Not too long ago, wife-battering was considered a private issue, while abortion and a woman's use of birth control were seen as secrets worth exposing. Today the opposite view prevails, and that's a healthy change. But there is far less clarity about sexual ethics in the workplace during
this period of rapid transition. Right now, women make up almost half of all
entry- and midlevel managers, up from just 17 percent in 1992. But as long as they continue to hit the glass ceiling -- fewer than 3 percent of all CEOs in Fortune 100
companies are female -- and to see what happens to women such as Hillary
Clinton when they try to affect policy rather than simply stand by their
man, many young women will continue to believe that their only access to
real political and economic power is through men. No wonder some of them
end up flashing their thongs.

The current scandal has thrown pundits on both sides into confusion -- it has some feminists defining a relationship between the president of the United States and a
21-year-old intern as consensual sex while conservatives stand up for a young woman
they'd otherwise denounce as the embodiment of feminist sexual depravity. At the same time, each day seems to bring fresh news of sex scandals in the past of those who are sitting in judgment of the president. Surely all this could stimulate some fruitful rethinking of "family values," sexual mores and gender relations at work and at home. Yet the level of the current debate is so low that I had to think twice about even using a word like "stimulate" in reference to it.

It's almost 1999. As the media endlessly remind us, there's just
one more year until the next millennium, and that means only one more
year to make a difference in the way families will live after the year 2000.
Do you think there's any chance that we could use the year to get serious
about the challenges and opportunities that men, women, and families
will face in the coming century?

By Stephanie Coontz

Stephanie Coontz teaches history and family studies at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. She is the author of "The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap" and "The Way We Really Are: Coming to Terms with America's Changing Families," and the editor, with Maya Parson and Gabrielle Raley, of "American Families: A Multicultural Reader."

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