This briefing paper is based on the authors’ monograph (with Xue Wang), “Physical Attractiveness and the Accumulation of Social and Human Capital in Adolescence and Young Adulthood,” part of the peer-reviewed series, Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development (Wiley-Blackwell).

Expert responses to this report are available online here.

How do your looks affect your life?

Is being attractive or unattractive a source of systematic social inequalities in people’s access to wealth, power and privilege? Should we add “beauty bias” to racism and sexism as a type of unacceptable discrimination?  more...

This paper is part of the Council on Contemporary Families Gender Revolution Rebound Symposium

This look at sexual frequency among younger couples in equal marriages refutes recent claims that when a man shares the housework equally, it is bad for the couple’s sex life.

For several decades, research has suggested that attitudes and laws favoring gender equity have changed more quickly than people’s actual behavior in intimate relationships. One recent highly publicized article reported that married couples who split domestic chores in an egalitarian manner had sex less often, and reported less satisfaction with their sex lives, than couples who adhered to more to conventional gender behaviors. The depressing message heard round the world was that couples remain stalled in their attachment to old “gender scripts,” and that attempts to revise these scripts decrease sexual desire and satisfaction, even among couples who claim to hold egalitarian values. more...

Amy Blackstone is a sociology professor at the University of Maine.

“We got a puppy, and that’s my idea of starting a family. People say, ‘Oh, that’s practice for parenting,’ but if it’s practice for anything it’s to be a mom to another puppy.” –Christina Hendricks

Image via Flickr Creative Commons
Image via Flickr Creative Commons

Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks is the most recent among a host of celebrities to be asked about when she’ll be adding kids to her family. Though the media has only recently taken notice of the childfree, the fact is that rates of childbearing in the U.S. have been on the decline for the past 40 years. It seems celebrities aren’t the only ones choosing to create families that don’t include kids.

The notion that family is something we choose rather than something based solely on ties of “blood or marriage” isn’t new. Kath Weston explored this idea over two decades ago in her 1991 book on gay and lesbian kinship, Families We Choose. Yet Google “start a family” and you’ll quickly discover that for many people, even today, families don’t begin until children enter the picture.

In 1976, just 10 percent of women had not given birth by the time they reached their forties. Today, that number has nearly doubled, reaching 19 percent in 2012. While a fifth of women may be without children, they are not without families. Research shows that people without children form bonds, create households, and help rear the next generation in many of the same ways that those with kids do.

For the 45 childfree women and men I have interviewed in the course of my research on the choice not to parent, family is about belonging, social support, responsibility, and love. For my interview participants, family can and does include blood relations such as siblings and parents and it also includes partners with whom they may have legal ties. But, on the whole, their definitions of family emphasize the needs that families meet and the functions they fulfill rather than who their families do or do not include. As Sara, a partnered childfree woman in her mid 30’s put it, family is those who are “united despite any kind of differences; it’s a togetherness.”

Image courtesy we’re {not} having a baby!,
Image courtesy we’re {not} having a baby!,

Perhaps many of the definitions of family my research participants shared emphasize meanings rather than members because of childfree people’s own experiences of exclusion. A number of my interview participants shared stories about not being invited to events at friends’ and relatives’ houses because it was assumed, without asking, that they wouldn’t want to participate if kids were present. Others described how “family friendly” events in the community exclude their adults-only families.

Annette, a 40-year-old childfree woman who defines family as “anyone who cares for and loves each other” shared her frustration: “Our town has lots of great activities and most of them are called some variation of, ‘Family Fun Day.’ So does that exclude me? It usually does because it’s geared for children, not for my family.” It seems that family fun days and family friendly environments really mean fun and friendly for just one kind of family: those that include children.

Americans of course aren’t the only ones whose perceptions of family seem to be limited to household units that include children. In Ireland, couples without children are defined by the census as “pre-family.” In some ways, this makes sense; having children is an important milestone and children are an essential part of family for many. But when one fifth of women end their childbearing years without having had children, perhaps it is time to consider that not all families do, nor must they, include children.

National surveys and other studies continuously tell us that work is a major source of stress for Americans. A 2005 Work and Families Institute study found that almost 90 percent of workers felt they either never had enough time in the day to do their job or that their job required them to work very hard. A Pew Report from 2013 found that more than half of all working moms and working dads experience work-family conflict. One-third of working moms and dads feel rushed on work-days, and almost 50 percent of working dads (and 25 percent of working moms) say they don’t have enough time with their children. And in a recently completed research project I helped conduct, we found that people report feeling less stressed out on non-work days than on work-days. Home, most of us believe, is where we recover from the stress of the work day. more...

This paper is part of the Council on Contemporary Families’ new Gender Revolution Rebound Symposium.

Click to expand graphics throughout.

For almost a decade now, researchers have been struck by a stall in what had been a remarkably rapid and seemingly unstoppable increase in support for gender equity and approval of women’s workforce participation up until the mid-1990s. This research paper provides evidence of what may be a rebound in support for gender equity since 2006.

The General Social Survey contains four questions about gender roles that were first posed to the American public in 1977 and have been asked on every survey since 1985. While some of the questions may feel dated (remember they were first asked 37 years ago), they remain useful to show the degree of change in our attitudes about proper roles for men and women. And between 1977 and the mid-1990s, the rate and extent of change were nothing short of remarkable. more...

Stacy Torres is a PhD candidate in sociology at New York University.

The American value of individualism affects us all, but what happens when you are not able to express that value? This is a dilemma for older people subject to stereotypes of dependency. They face special challenges in striving for this ideal and feeling comfortable enough to accept help so that they can remain self-sufficient. In my last post, I explored some reasons why older people may not want to move in with their families. Given these cultural pressures, how do elders living on their own negotiate their need for care and autonomy?

Programs like Meals on Wheels help older people remain independent in their homes. (Image via Wikimedia Commons.)

Polls consistently show that older adults and aging baby boomers want to “age in place”—or remain in their homes independently for as long as possible. This arrangement, desired by ordinary people as a means of preserving autonomy and by policy makers who view this as a cost effective alternative to nursing homes, requires that seniors—often in conjunction with their families—patch together creative ways to support their independence.

The day-to-day managing of routine tasks like grocery shopping, doctor’s appointments, and household chores, usually necessitates a little help from a supportive web that includes family, friends, neighbors, and social service agencies. Family may help older relatives with chores, coordinate medical appointments, and pay for supplemental help when possible. Network studies have foundthat friends are especially good at providing emotional support and a sympathetic ear when life’s travails require someone to bear witness. And neighbors can pitch in with practical help, such as picking up a few things from the store when an older person has trouble leaving the house. For years I have observed how eighty-year-old Joe’s next-door neighbor has served as his link to the outside world whenever his swollen ankles and knees leave him homebound. She brings him a copy of The Daily News and groceries whenever he needs a few days to mend.

Beyond kin and friendship networks, senior centers provide a range of services to community-dwelling elders, though they are also usually the first candidates for budget cuts. A few older people I’ve met over the years regularly took advantage of the cheap but nutritious meals offered daily by a local senior center for a dollar, which saved them the hassle of cooking for one and the cost of eating out but also provided a little companionship. Nonprofit organizations that serve older adults, such as the Jewish Association Serving the Aging (JASA), offer comprehensive access to services that help older people deal with the challenges of living alone in an expensive, gentrified city like New York, including benefits screening for programs such as food stamps and Medicaid. As I walked past a Midtown Manhattan food pantry the other day and saw the line stretching a half-block long, filled with mostly Asian and Latino elders and their shopping carts waiting for donated potatoes, rice, and canned vegetables, I was reminded again of how crucial these stop gaps are for those struggling to remain independent in old age.

But in some cases, elders may go too far in keeping their family at bay due to fears of losing their independence if they reveal their physical or financial challenges. In my own research I’ve found that some people feel so threatened by the prospect of moving in with family (or worse, a nursing home) and ashamed of asking for help that they sometimes go to great lengths to cover up health issues and other difficulties. It’s often only after a crisis that families learn of mounting problems. For example, after 83-year-old Dottie ended up hospitalized for a heart attack her daughter discovered that she had not seen a doctor besides her podiatrist for several years. In the absence of regular medical care, Dottie had improvised her own self-care measures such as weighing down a shopping cart with telephone books for support when she walked, rather than using a cane or walker. When Theresa, in her mid-70s, fell and twisted her ankle, her family discovered the severity of her dementia, which had eroded her ability to tell time and remember dates. Afterwards she moved closer to where her brother lived.

How can we support elders so that reaching out for help doesn’t pose a threat to independence but rather ensures that a bad situation doesn’t get worse or become an unnecessary crisis? Perhaps the first step is recognizing that none of us can do it alone and that at every age we achieve self-reliance by drawing on a mix of social resources and supports.

Update on Research from Jennifer Glass

Why are divorce rates higher in religiously conservative “red” states and lower in less religiously conservative “blue” states? After all, most conservatives frown upon divorce, and religious commitment is believed to strengthen marriage, not erode it. Even so, religiously conservative states Alabama and Arkansas have the second and third highest divorce rates in the U.S., at 13 per 1000 people per year while New Jersey and Massachusetts, more liberal states, are two of the lowest at 6 and 7 per 1000 people per year.

Evangelicals and divorce. For a study earlier this year in the American Journal of Sociology (abstract only), Demographers Jennifer Glass at the University of Texas and Philip Levchak at the University of Iowa looked at the entire map of the United States, going county by county, to examine where divorces occurred in 2000 and what the characteristics of those counties were. Their work confirms that one of the strongest factors predicting divorce rates (per 1000 married couples) is the concentration of conservative or evangelical Protestants in that county.

DivorceFinalPrevious discussions of this puzzling paradox have focused on three alternative explanations.

Is it poverty? Some scholars argue that it has nothing to do with religious beliefs and practices, but reflects the fact that conservative religious groups are most concentrated in rural and Southern counties, which tend to have lower wages than the national average and higher rates of poverty. And research does show that such conditions do raise the risk of divorce. Yet even controlling for income and region, divorce rates tend to be especially high in areas where conservative religious groups are prominent. more...

Stephanie Coontz has an excellent Op-Ed on the front of today’s New York Times Sunday Review, which draws out the implications for family instability of the connection between increasing gender equality on the one hand, and increasing economic inequality and insecurity on the other. The new instability is disproportionately concentrated among the population with less than a college degree.

To help with her research, I gave Stephanie the figure below, but it didn’t make the final cut. This shows the marriage history of men and women by education and age. She wrote:

According to the sociologist Philip N. Cohen, among 40-somethings with at least a bachelor’s degree, as of 2012, 63 percent of men and 59 percent of women were in their first marriage, compared to just 43 percent of men and 42 percent of women without a bachelor’s degree.

I highlighted those numbers in the figure. Also striking is the higher percentage of divorced people among those with less than a BA degree (and higher widowhood rates). Click to enlarge:

age marriage history

Cross-posted on the Family Inequality blog.

Joanna Pepin is a graduate student in sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park. Follow her on Twitter at @CoffeeBaseball.

Comedian Louis C.K. has a comedy bit about the bravery necessary for heterosexual dating. He points out, perceptively and with humor, that (traditionally) men have to summon the courage to ask out a potential partner while women are courageous for dating men at all.

How do women still go out with guys, when you consider that there is no greater threat to women than men? We’re the number one threat to women! Globally and historically, we’re the number one cause of injury and mayhem to women. You know what our [men’s] number one threat is? Heart disease.

Although women continue to date, love, and sometimes marry men, marriage has been in decline for decades.

The response to this demographic shift has been to invest billions of dollars in marriage promotion. Although the primary (flawed) justification given to emphasize marriage is to decrease poverty – especially for single mothers and their children – marriage promotion activists also have argued that “marriage dramatically reduces the risk that mothers will suffer from domestic abuse.” This ideological thinking was debunked as early as 2004, but was revived when Brad Wilcox and Robin Fretwell Wilson published a piece in the Washington Post claiming the solution to violence against women is marriage.

The pro-marriage activists rely on statistics that compare rates of violence between cohabiting and married couples.  What they ignore are selection effects. For instance, research from the longitudinal Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study illustrated mothers’ strategies to keep their children safe by leaving relationships they see as unhealthy, especially those involving physical abuse. Sociologists Catherine Kenney and Sara McLanahan show in their research analysis of data from the National Survey of Families and Households that selection out of cohabitation and into marriage – and selection out of marriage through divorce – creates an apples-and-oranges comparison between these two groups.

Another talking point for the marriage promoters is that married men have lower rates of criminal activity compared to non-married men. However, the research is still unclear on whether marriage per se decreases criminal activity, or if crime cessation is associated with stable family ties — cohabiting, married, or otherwise. Moreover, this line of research investigates generalized crime and not intimate partner violence (IPV) specifically. There is no reason to think IPV operates in the same way, given that DV is characteristically a uniquely individual dynamic of one person establishing power and control over another. It also ignores research on violence in later life, which shows that violence doesn’t decrease over the course of a relationship, but rather abusive tactics change. If the marker of a lifelong commitment is what decreases IPV, having children together should also be associated with lower rates of DV.  However, many survivors of IPV continue to experience abuse during their pregnancies (and after) and there is some evidence that the risk of violence increases during pregnancy.

To no one’s surprise, the federally funded marriage promotion programs have had no impact on relationship quality of participants, couples were no more likely to stay together or marry after participating, and they had no effect on the frequency or severity of IPV. Yet, we continue to spend scarce welfare dollars on marriage promotion at the expense of the very real economic resources survivors of domestic violence need.  For example, although a Family Violence Prevention option grants temporary waivers of public assistance requirements for survivors of domestic violence, women are rarely screened for domestic violence and few are able to obtain the mandated services even when they do report domestic violence to their case worker.

Contrary to the theory that marriage reduces IPV, one could theorize that marriage is actually more dangerous for women. Sociologist Philip Cohen showed that prevalence of IPV has been declining over the same time period as marriage rates have been falling. While the myth of widespread stranger danger is pervasive, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Justice, in two thirds of female homicides, women were killed by an intimate partner or family member (24% were killed by a spouse or ex-spouse; 21% were killed by a boyfriend or girlfriend). Marriage theoretically increases perpetrator access to victims, and social sanctions as well as legal ties make it more difficult to leave dangerous situations.

Indeed, evidence we do have demonstrates marriage is no safe haven for women. In some ways our societal obsession with the institution of marriage may be placing more women at risk. Data from the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence Fatality Review Project reveal that 45% of the women killed in DV homicides committed by male perpetrators had been married. These couples were more likely to be living together, have children together, and be in the process of ending the relationship. Public health researcher Sara Shoener affirmed what I witnessed as an advocate working with survivors of abuse: cultural narratives of linking marriage with success, the stigma of single motherhood, and religious beliefs about divorce hinder survivors’ ability to access the vital resources they need to keep themselves and their children safe. Creating a no-win situation, mothers are condemned if they raise their children alone, blamed if they don’t leave an abusive relationship to protect their children, and criticized for deliberately obstructing relationships between children and fathers if they exit an abusive relationship.

Image by the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Data from Domestic Violence Fatality Review Project.
Image by the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Data from Domestic Violence Fatality Review Project.

The pro-marriage movement seems to be borrowing a concept from the National Rifle Association, that “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun.” As the NRA asserts that the solution to gun violence is more gun violence, pro-marriage advocates assert the solution to men’s violence against women is for women to marry men. Increase both access and dependence. Raise the stakes. Make the relationship permanent. This solution is not only illogical and unsubstantiated, it’s dangerous.


“It’s my home,” Sylvia, 85, offers as a simple but profound explanation for why she’s not ready to give up her Manhattan apartment and move in with relatives. Though she lived with her own parents as they aged, Sylvia has lived alone for almost twenty years, since her husband passed away, as does her 92-year-old sister-in-law and many of her contemporaries in old age.

People increasingly prefer to "age in place"--near rather than with family.
People increasingly prefer to “age in place”–near rather than with family.

The advent of Social Security gave older people—and more often than not, older women—the financial resources to live on their own. Economists Kathleen McGarry and Robert Schoeni found that 59 percent of widows over the age of 65 lived with adult children in 1940, compared with 20 percent fifty years later. Today nearly a third of all older adults live alone. These rates rise with age and follow distinct gendered patterns, with women much more likely to live alone than men at all ages. By age 85, 47 percent of women and 27 percent of men lived alone in 2010.

Many older people struggle to make ends meet on Social Security as their sole source of income, or in combination with modest savings and pensions. For immigrant elders in cities like New York, living alone is often not an option due to a lack of affordable housing, linguistic hurdles, and cultural traditions of multi-generational living arrangements. While poverty rates rise with age and hit women hardest in late life, as my analysis of Census data has found, those who can afford to live alone usually do. Researchers expect that these trends will only increase with the aging of baby boomers, who have experienced higher rates of divorce, cohabitation, lifelong singlehood, and childlessness during their lifetimes. more...