Family is a basic social institution, and it is in flux. We will need to adjust to the new realities and understand the implications on U.S. society. As each new generation of adults replace the last, the concept of “family” is replaced by new ideas of what constitutes a family. While idealizations of family life may take us back to the mid-20th century historical norm of a husband, a wife, and two biological children, current changes take on more complex, diverse, and dynamic realities of actual family life in the United States. The social changes of the past 100 years have come in waves, creating new family systems. My book, My book, Families and Aging, examines how these social changes in family affect later adult years.

One interview in my book was with a woman in mid-life, concerned about later life consequences for her younger wife. Cathy married and had three children in the late 1970s. By the 1990s, she realized she had always been attracted to women. She had an amicable divorce and shared custody of her children with her ex-husband. Fast forward to the year 2000, she had found a life partner, a woman, and married in an open Episcopalian ceremony in which the congregation technically married the couple, rather than the priest officiating the marriage directly. Cathy’s children participated in the ceremony with responsive readings. Now, she and her wife are empty nesters, concerned about many of the same issues parents are concerned about: will their emerging adults find good jobs? Will she have enough money for retirement? Who will take care of them in old age? She was especially concerned for her wife who does not have a biological bond with Cathy’s children. While they care for her as a person, she does not envision her children taking care of her wife’s health and well-being in late life after Cathy is gone. My book examines how diverse families will experience aging into later life with complicated family situations. It draws upon theories showing that there are fewer norms of obligation in diverse families, which leaves more room for interpretation and negotiation.

Those who were born after the 1950s came of age after the sweeping reforms of civil rights, the women’s movement, and the sexual revolution. They witnessed delayed first marriage, and new widespread availability of birth control. They saw increases in cohabitation, stepfamilies, and a peak in the divorce rate in the early 1980s. More than 70 years later, in the 2000s, these trends continue. New social movements are taking place and further changing our notions of family, gender, and race. Some of these include the 2015 legalization of same-sex marriage and the trans rights movement, both offering a more expansive understanding of sex and gender. The concept of cohort replacement (the process of each new successive cohort of young adults come of age during their particular time in history, and ultimately replace the older generations) is important. As older adults who were born before the middle of the 20th century grow older, the new generations come of age with their more diverse versions of family, gender identity, and sexuality.

Societal Changes in Families

Many older Americans were used to families including a married couple with two to three children on average. Within these families there were adult children, spouses, and more siblings with whom people grew old. While divorce, sexual and gender minority partnerships, and single parenthood existed, they were less common, less public, and not broadly accepted.

Current family circumstances such as divorce, remarriage, and stepfamilies have been common for some time. Remaining single, cohabitation, single parenthood, delayed age of first birth and delayed marriage, and remaining childless are all growing trends. Remaining single is one of the fastest growing trends that is on the increase with currently about 31% of the adult population being single, with large differences by race and sexual identity. For instance, 28% of White, 29% of Hispanic and 47% of Black individuals are single. Furthermore, the lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) community has more single people than those who identify as straight (47% versus 29%). In 2018, about 18% of those older than age 55 remained childless, with an expected large increase in the future. All these trends show increasing individualism, fewer long marriages, fewer children, and more time alone. The ramifications are starting to show among older adults living alone. In the case of Cathy and her wife, a main concern is that her wife, who is younger than Cathy, will not have much support in later life if Cathy dies first. While there are changing social norms and understanding for same-sex couples, the reality of being single and alone with little support remains.

Implications for Family Changes on Older Adults

One major concern with the growing trends of families is that with freedom and independence comes more isolation–especially for older adults. In particular, with the growing trend of singlehood, never married individuals, women having fewer children on average, and single-parent families, the support systems that families traditionally offer will no longer be available for older adults. In addition, as those who remain single and/or do not have children enter old age, there will be fewer family members to watch over those older adults living alone. In these smaller families, the psychological and physical needs of older adults may not be met. Loneliness and social isolation in old age are a growing concern, so much so that the Surgeon General recently called it an epidemic. We as a society should consider how we will adapt to more people living alone, with an emphasis on health and safety of older individuals. There is a loosening of norms and obligations that were present in traditional kinship structures. As the deinstitutionalization of marriage continues, and cyclical marriage and cohabitation increases, family linkages, norms, and obligations must be negotiated in modern families.

Patricia Drentea is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.  She received her Ph.D. in Sociology from The Ohio State University. Her 2019 book, Families & Aging includes topics such as family diversity, later life parenthood, health in old age, work and activities in later life, and changes in family and social trends. You can follow them on Twitter @PDrentea