More Americans are pessimistic than optimistic about the future of the family. People are looking beyond their marriages and families for fulfilment. “Open relationships” are fashionable. And men have stronger family values than women, all according to a new report by the Pew Research Center.
The report, released on September 14, presents a perplexing mix of good and bad news, reflected in Pew’s rather bland title for the impressively in-depth, 43-page study: “Public Has Mixed Views on the Modern American Family.”
Over 5,000 U.S. adults were surveyed by Pew in April this year, responding to almost 40 questions along a five-choice rating scale.
Among other topics, participants were asked about their attitudes toward the future of the American family and what is required for a fulfilling life as well as their views on different types of family arrangements and the country’s declining fertility rates.
First, the good news.
An encouraging number of Americans retain a high view of marriage, even traditional marriage.
By far, the most acceptable type of family is a husband and wife raising children together, according to 90 percent of respondents. The next most acceptable type of family is a husband and a wife who choose not to have children (73 percent).
(Other family types, which all scored much lower and will be discussed below, included single-parent and gay or lesbian arrangements).
A high view of marriage is also reflected in respondents’ views on how declining marriage rates would impact the nation’s future: 36 percent see fewer marriages as a negative for America, compared to just 9 percent who welcome the prospect.
The trend viewed most negatively by respondents is fewer children being raised by two married parents. Almost half (49 percent) say this will have a negative impact on the country, in comparison to just 11 percent who view the trend as positive.
The report yielded several other happy headlines concerning youth, minorities, and people of faith.
While pessimism about the future of the family abounds, young adults aged 18 to 29 are less pessimistic than their seniors on this subject.
Meanwhile, minority communities appear to be a holdout for some conservative values in America, with African American and Hispanic adults expressing more skepticism than Caucasian respondents about gay and lesbian family arrangements.
Finally, faith continues to play an important role in shaping Americans’ views on what makes a good family arrangement, especially for white evangelical Protestants, 83 percent of whom say religion has a fair amount of influence on their views. Among black Protestants, that figure is 62 percent; among Catholics, 47 percent.
Next, the bad news—and there is a lot of it.
Far more Americans are pessimistic than optimistic about the future of marriage and family, with 40 percent expressing pessimism and only a quarter of adults—25 percent—expressing optimism.
To soften the blow, Pew suggests the public is “pessimistic about a lot of things these days—not just the family.” But it’s hard to see how this is a silver lining.
A majority of Americans are pessimistic about the country’s moral and ethical standards (63 percent), a majority are pessimistic about the educational system (59 percent), and more people are pessimistic than optimistic about the future of racial equality (44 percent pessimistic vs. 28 percent optimistic). There’s pessimism all round, in other words!
Additionally, most Americans are looking outside of their marriage and their family to find fulfilment. Just 23 percent of respondents say that being married is very important for a fulfilling life, and only a fraction more—26 percent—say children are very important for their fulfilment.
By contrast, a whopping 71 percent view having a job or career they enjoy as very important in living a fulfilled life. Having close friends is also a very important condition for life satisfaction, according to 61 percent of respondents.
Americans have a high acceptance for single-parent families: 78 percent say a single parent raising children on his or her own is acceptable, while 60 percent say it is completely acceptable. If such responses arise from a sense of compassion for those who have suffered loss or divorce, well and good. If they arise from an expression of straight-up positivity toward fatherlessness—a scourge now wreaking havoc in America—this finding is deeply concerning.
If the Pew report is anything to go on, same-sex marriage is now a fixed feature of American life, with 66 percent of respondents saying a married gay or lesbian couple without children is completely acceptable, and almost half—47 percent—saying the same for gay married couples raising children together.
Open relationships are the latest fashion, following hot on the heels of same-sex marriage. Alarmingly, only half (50 percent) of American adults say marriages where both spouses agree that they can date or have sex with other people are unacceptable. Fully one third (33 percent) say such an arrangement is acceptable.
Unsurprisingly, lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults are far more likely than straight adults to view open marriages as acceptable (75 percent vs. 29 percent).
Now for the surprising.
American men apparently have stronger family values than their female counterparts. According to the report:
Men are more likely than women to say all of the trends included in the survey will have a negative impact. For example, 55% of men say fewer children being raised by two married parents will have a negative impact on the future of our country, compared with 45% of women. And by a margin of 12 percentage points, men are more likely than women to say fewer people ever getting married will have a negative impact (43% vs. 31%). Similarly, while 35% of men say people having fewer children will impact the U.S. negatively, only 21% of women say the same.
Likewise, women place more importance on job and career enjoyment than do men (74 percent vs. 69 percent). Conversely, more men than women view marriage and children as very important for a fulfilling life. Over a quarter of men—28 percent—said being married was very important for their life satisfaction, while only 18 percent of women said the same. And 29 percent of men said having children was key to their fulfilment, with only 22 percent of women agreeing.
A stew of good, bad, and surprising news, Pew’s latest report on the American family suggests that while marriage and family remain important institutions for the nation, they have been severely weakened—to judge by the discrepancy between male and female responses to many of the questions—by the sexual revolution, particularly its latest iterations in third- and fourth-wave feminism and the rainbow revolution.
Even so, if there is hope on the horizon for future generations, it will likely emerge from some unexpected demographics: minorities, people of faith, and perhaps most surprisingly of all: the men of America.
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