The New Statesman Essay - Celebrate the new family

Are "supply mums" and "supply dads" such a bad thing?

It is widely acknowledged that we live in a state of transition, where old rules are obsolete and the new ones have yet to take shape. Peter Drucker, in his book Post-Capitalist Society, wrote: "Every few hundred years in western history . . . we cross a divide. Within a few short decades, society rearranges itself - its worldview, its basic values, its social and political structures, its key institutions. Fifty years later, there is a new world. And the people born then cannot even imagine the world in which their grandparents lived and to which their own parents were born."

Nothing more clearly illustrates this world in transition than the debate about family values. The family appears to be imploding and exploding simultaneously. Since the 1960s, the divorce rate has increased sixfold; nearly a quarter of our children see their parents divorce before their 16th birthday. More and more children are growing up in single-parent households. The first-time marriage rate is at an all-time low, but cohabitation continues to grow. The birth rate is in decline - almost a fifth of women born since the 1960s are predicted to remain child-free all their lives.

These developments prompt two distinct responses. One mourns the death of the "traditional" family: Patricia Morgan's newly revised edition of Farewell to the Family, for the Institute of Economic Affairs, is typical. The second, opposite response celebrates divorce as the great liberator and dismisses out of hand the concerns of people such as Morgan. This debate is not only tired and worn, it is also disconnected from reality. Neither the liberal nor conservative view fully captures the dynamics of change.

The changes are as dramatic as those that accompanied the industrial revolution over 200 years ago. That, too, transformed the family. In the pre-industrial era, for example, the extended family was the norm. Families generated economic stability and acted as an informal welfare system. The household was the primary unit of production. Work and family life were closely integrated, and gender roles were flexible. Domestic servants and labourers, as well as friends and blood relatives, were considered part of the household. Families extended outward into their communities.

With the advent of industrial society, the family changed. Families became smaller. The extended family gave way to the nuclear unit. Gender roles became rigidly demarcated. Men worked and women stayed at home, forging exclusive bonds with the children. This pattern of family life took time to assert itself; it found post-1945 expression in the cosy image of the Oxo family, behind which stood the paternalistic employer, a rise in living and working standards, security for all.

What we call the "traditional" family - male breadwinner, female homemaker and 2.2 children - has now become a minority form. Households comprising couples with children have fallen from 38 per cent of the total in 1961 to 23 per cent in 1998. Almost half of married mothers with pre-school children are employed today, against a quarter 20 years ago. And, according to the latest edition of Social Trends, the proportion of divorced people in the population will almost double in the three decades from 1990 to 2020, while the proportion of married people will have fallen from 57 per cent in 1992 to 49 per cent in 2020.

In other words, diversity is king: 27 per cent of households contain one person, 31 per cent have dependent children, 38 per cent are families without children. The umbilical cord between parenthood and marriage has been cut and, partly as a consequence, the nuclear family no longer defines the culture. Yet it is still treated as the norm against which all families are judged.

While this remains the case, a new story about family life cannot be told. Other families - single parents, cohabitees, blended families, stepfamilies, gay families - always run the risk of being pathologised, dismissed as dysfunctional and deviant. But once we let go of our attachment to the nuclear family and look at the world afresh, we can see that the family is not so much dying as being reborn.

The story of modern family life is one of regeneration, of new chapters in family lives, rather than abrupt endings. Today's lone parent is tomorrow's reconstituted family. People may become married, divorced or single but they rarely remain in any of these states throughout their lives. They go on to form new relationships, new commitments, and these build on the family commitments they already have. For example, one study in the 1990s found that, in a single year, 3 per cent of children experienced parental separation but 2.5 per cent saw the arrival of a step-parent or the return of a natural parent.

Tomorrow's family looks as if it will be a flexible, ever-expanding kind of family. It will share some of the characteristics of the pre-industrial family. Gender roles are becoming fluid once again. The boundaries between work and home are being redrawn. Families, particularly those with children, will depend for support on friends and wider family networks, as well as on au pairs and nannies. (But now, in contrast to pre-industrial society, they also look for help from employers and government.) Even cohabitation is not as new as we think. Between the mid-18th and mid-19th century, historians estimate that as many as one fifth of all couples in England and Wales were cohabiting as a prelude to marriage or as an alternative to it.

Serial monogamy (and serial parenting) is the order of the day. The amicable break-up is becoming a reality. The film Four Weddings and a Funeral depicts a world where ex-lovers attend weddings and celebrations. Four weddings, a funeral, several divorces and an aborted marriage later, Hugh Grant asks his female lover if she will agree not to marry him for ever.

Commitment, then, can transcend marriage and separation. Take one family I interviewed: the Joseph family, living in north London. Elie and Craig divorced several years ago. Craig maintains close contact with the children. His mother lives in a flat above Elie's and remains actively involved in the lives of her grandchildren. Elie works and now has a new partner, but he does not yet live with her. Statistically she would be categorised as a lone parent. In reality she is the central figure in a sprawling extended family, which incorporates not just her children and current partner, but her own parents, her mother-in-law, ex-lover, other blood relatives and friends. Kim, one of her daughters, is very clear about the benefits. She talks about her "friend family" and the virtues of having "supply mummies and supply daddies".

In Elie's family, friends are accepted and treated much like blood relatives. We can see something similar in sitcoms such as Friends and This Life, and films such as Four Weddings and a Funeral and Reality Bites. Friends blend seamlessly into family lives. One recent poll found that, to people in their twenties, friends are more important than blood family. Lesbians and gays have pioneered these "families of choice", partly because they were rejected by their own flesh and blood.

So 21st-century families will have an unpredictable accumulation of lifelong family members, including in-laws from first marriages and new half-kin from remarriages, with various godparents and godchildren. The ageing of society will extend families further, making four- generation families quite common, though the trend toward smaller families and delayed childbirth could also leave some children without grandparents, uncles or aunts. Again, diversity is king.

These changes in family life are reflected in new rituals. Divorce ceremonies are growing. Marriage ceremonies and rituals already bring stepfamilies into the frame. Child-naming ceremonies and baby showers are common, even if christenings and traditional church ceremonies are in decline. In the 21st century such rituals of commitment look set to define the culture, as people seek new forms of belonging, intimacy and connection, as families regroup and re-form across the life cycle.

More and more families now buy in outside help. According to Mintel, the domestic service economy - the army of childminders, au pairs, cleaners and nannies - grew fivefold in the eighties and nineties. But families also draw on informal networks of support. A recent study found that a third of pre-school children are looked after by grandparents, and Age Concern found that two-thirds of grandparents thought they were more involved in their grandchildren's lives than their parents were with their grandchildren. The Henley Centre for Forecasting predicts that by 2020 we shall see a return to "Walton-style" households, with three generations living together, or close by, in an effort to reduce the costs of caring (whether for children or the elderly) and to share responsibilities.

So the extended family looks set for a comeback. In some communities, it disappeared only recently. A famous study of indigenous East Enders in London in the 1950s, by Michael Young and Peter Wilmott, depicted a world of dense networks and ties, with families relying on other blood relatives and friends to help out with childcare, exchanging services with each other.

In other communities, the extended network has never really gone away. I recently visited an Asian extended family in Southall. Spanning three generations, and made up of three distinct nuclear family units, the Choudharys occupy three adjacent houses. But the walls between the houses have each had doorways installed. So the 15 members of the family function in effect as a single household unit, while maintaining their autonomy and privacy. Domestic labour - cooking, cleaning, parenting and caring responsibilities - are all shared around.

Far from heralding the end of the family, the extended network strengthens it by relieving some of the stresses and strains - finding babysitters, picking up children from school, finding time to care for the elderly and so on - that characterise late 20th-century life. Far from being indifferent to the family, people seem to want a better balance between work and family life - to spend more time with their partners and children, even if that means a lower income.

What should governments and politicians do? They should start by valuing today's families, rather than judging them. They should aim to strengthen and stabilise them in all their diverse shapes and sizes. They should find ways of helping people achieve a more effective balance between work and family life and allow them to transfer time and resources from work into the home. In particular, governments should foster and encourage men's involvement in family life through initiatives such as paid parental leave.

New Labour may baulk at any suggestion that it should reinvent family life. But in the long run, political interest in encouraging the growth of extended family networks is likely to increase. Financial pressures on the welfare state will make government look kindly on initiatives that encourage self-reliance. At the moment, for example, the elderly are presented as a drain on our society - a problem both of finance and of care. But in reality, for much of their old age they are great assets, and many families already rely on their help to deal with childcare. Tomorrow's politicians should value these contributions and offer some kind of cash payment for this care. But they must also accept that the help must always be freely given. A reinvented extended family can never replace the need for a national childcare strategy, paid parental leave and new ways of working. But it can reinforce these things. It can nurture their growth.

Periods of gestation are never easy, and no birth comes without labour pains. But as a society we are now faced with a clear choice. We can make the birth of tomorrow's family easier, less painful, even a source of delight. But to do that, we have to embrace change and let go of the past. We have to broaden our horizons beyond the nuclear family and strive to see families as they really are, getting away from both the nostalgia of the conservatives and the complacency of the liberals. We must learn to think in the future tense for the sake of tomorrow's children.

The writer, who works for the Demos think-tank, presents "Family and Friends", the fifth of BBC2's "Big Ideas" series, on 8 August at 7.30pm

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