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AARP The Magazine

Boomers@50+

The New American Family

Meet 6 clans who embody our country's changing ideas about what kinship is

Think your family is unusual? That probably makes it normal. The American family is in the midst of unprecedented change. And, as with so many other aspects of modern life, boomers deserve much of the credit — or the blame.

New American Family then and now graphic percentages

When boomers were kids in the 1950s, 60 percent of U.S. families consisted of two married parents: a breadwinner and a homemaker. Today only 20 percent of American children live in such a family. Instead, couples divorce — or never marry in the first place — and form new households, raising their kids in a tumble of step- and half-siblings. And although the divorce rate has been declining among younger couples, among boomers it has increased 50 percent in the past 20 years — with no slowdown in sight. "The baby boomers are likely to have the highest lifetime levels of divorce of any generation born in the 20th century," predicts Andrew Cherlin, professor of sociology and public policy at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

But behind that unhappy statistic lies an idealistic impulse. If boomer families are more fluid than others, it's because that generation has heightened expectations of family life, says Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage: A History. Raised during a postwar period of ever-increasing prosperity, boomers saw their families' fortunes improve steadily, and they accepted that as the natural state of affairs — not only for their own financial future, but for life in general. "We expected things to get better every year," Coontz says. "We had a willingness to go for more in our family lives and a willingness to leave if things didn't work out."

Optimistic boomers rewrote the rules for families. They fought for a woman's right to pursue rewarding work outside the home — and a man's right to be a full partner in parenting. And while a great many boomers embraced traditional values, the generation as a whole turned divorce and cohabitation from taboo to commonplace. Boomers also demanded respect for all kinds of familial bonds, including interracial and gay partnerships, single parenthood and interracial adoption. As a result, the very definition of family in this country has changed. These days, unlike in previous generations, a single parent with a child is called a family; an unmarried couple with a child is called a family; a same-sex couple with a child is called a family. "Our concept of families is more flexible today," says Susan L. Brown, codirector of the National Center for Family & Marriage Research in Bowling Green, Ohio. "It's not 'Here's a rigid, narrow definition, and now you have to conform.' It accommodates whomever we view to be part of our families."

Among all these changes, though, one thing remains constant: Americans' love for their kin. In survey after survey, an overwhelming majority of people say that their family is at the center of their lives. As boomer Michael J. Fox once put it, "Family is not an important thing. It's everything."

Next page: From single to stepmom (video). »

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