Families still come first

May 16, 1997

ESRC's population and household change programme will inform Government on welfare reform. Early findings below.

THE FAMILY has survived enormous change to retain its central position in most British people's lives, according to research at Cambridge University.

Jacqueline Scott's exhaustive trawl through social attitudes data reveals that the family still matters most, despite increases in cohabitation, divorce and single parenthood.

Dr Scott, in the faculty of social and political sciences, found that women generally give more importance to family events than men, and young people tend to be more self-centred than their elders.

But among adults there is a sense that the family, in the broadest sense, is what matters most. Married couples and single parents are equally likely to put family members before themselves, and see family life as more important than their individual careers.

Dr Scott's research found that the marriage-versus-cohabitation debate has nevertheless swung decisively in favour of the latter. Figures show that even among those born before 1930, only a minority (41 per cent of men and 35 per cent of women) think that living together outside marriage is always wrong. Among those born after 1960 only 7 per cent oppose cohabitation.

Only 2 per cent of those born before 1930 actually cohabited, while nearly half of those born in the 1960s have subsequently lived with someone out of wedlock. There has been a steady decline in the number of marriages following from a period of cohabitation.

Another pressure on traditional family life has been a growth in the number of working mothers. Most men and women no longer believe that a wife's place is in the home looking after children. Only 43 per cent of men and 39 per cent of women supported the traditional view in 1994.

But there remains a strong conviction among both men and women that women's family responsibilities, particularly involving young children, must come first. In 1994, 62 per cent of men and 52 per cent of women felt that pre-school children suffer if their mothers work.

Dr Scott explains this partial contradiction, between the acceptance of women working and fears that such work affects young children, as a reflection of the degree to which the right of mothers to work has been established in Britain. She said that the widespread acceptance of that right meant that both men and women were now more comfortable expressing their concerns about the possible effects on children without fear of being called sexist.

Four out of five mothers said that they would go out to work if their husbands or relatives were available to look after their children. Dr Scott said it was difficult to tell if there had been a significant rise in the numbers of househusbands due to a lack of earlier comparative statistics. However, she said that recent trends showed little evidence of role reversal.

Despite the increased economic pressures on women to work, Dr Scott said that ideological beliefs were more important in determining whether women with young children went to work.

Compared with Germany and the United States, Britain has been relatively slow to change its gender-role attitudes. Dr Scott said that this may reflect the relatively large amount of part-time work in Britain which allows married women some degree of economic independence while contributing to the household. They pose little fundamental threat to traditional gender division of roles.

Looking at abortion, Dr Scott found that women who grew up in the 1960s, post-pill era, retained their liberal attitudes. Overall in Britain there has been a marked increase in support for abortion. These pro-abortion attitudes have increased more rapidly among women leading to a gender difference in attitudes today.

Dr Scott said that the increasingly secular values of younger generations suggest that tolerance for abortion will increase in all nations, even countries like Ireland where it is still banned.

* see research papers

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