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Family Formation, Birth Cohort and Gender Role

When one deliberates over the changes occurring in demographic trends, it is intriguing to grasp that it is invariably the fairer sex that seizes attention. This is probably because women nowadays are on the move the world over, so it is easy to turn all spotlights on their direction and blame them for any deviance that occurs in the process of family formation. Sociology of family delves on these issues, while recognizing that in the present day world both sexes have to act as ‘protagonists’ in the realm of household. Though the nature of ‘family’ has undergone a drastic makeover since its very inception, one’s ideas about it remain seeped in tradition and past. It is this irony that I will explore in this essay.

The main demographic trends in industrial societies today are late marriage, declining fertility, low mortality, delay in motherhood and marital instability. Declining fertility and mortality can be explained through the theory of demographic transition , which describes that the transition from high birth rates and death rates to low birth and death rates is imminent, as societies evolve from pre-industrial to industrialized economies. Thus, this theory advocates that population changes over time should be understood as part of economic development of a country. This description of demographic trends is period-based that involves four stages of demographic transition; the first one being characterized by high birth and death rates and the last with low birth rate and death rate. Most of the developed countries have reached stage 4, while the majority of developing countries are in stage 2 or stage 3. Having said this, however, the explanation provided in this theory is rather too economic and biased. Perhaps, education and higher GDPpc have also changed perceptions, and people now prefer to have fewer children for whom they can afford the best of education and facilities. Besides, more and more women have started participating in the labour market because of which it has become increasingly difficult to manage the dual roles of a home-maker and a worker. As a consequence, they are beginning to delay either marriage or family formation.

Decline in birth rates could also be explained through a comparatively recent theory proposed by Richard Easterlin, which showed how birth rates are related to cohort size and relative economic status during the post World War II period. Broadly, the Easterlin theory traces the genesis of baby boom and baby bust periods in the existence of an inverse relationship between cohort size and social and economic fortunes of people, concluding that a large cohort size is characterized by low fertility. In effect, a large cohort size impinges on among other things the economic opportunities available to the members of a cohort thereby reducing their earnings or income. It is worth noting here that it is the relative and not absolute income that is significant, as members in the child bearing age are predisposed to comparing their income earning potential with that of their parental generation with a view to assessing if they will be able to maintain or enhance the standard of living they have been used to, after starting a family. If this relative income turns out to be smaller than their parents’, they modify their demographic behaviour in order to bridge the gap between resources and aspirations. Infact, members of a cohort usually end up making alterations in other aspects as well such as economic decision-making, women employment, family structure etc., which separately or cumulatively have an influence on family formation. On these lines, a small cohort size is followed by a large one and vice versa. Nonetheless, Richard Easterlin himself pointed out that this theory holds true only if other factors are kept constant. These other factors could be the economic scenario affecting aggregate labour demand, immigration policy, state of women empowerment, government welfare plans etc. Though this cohort-based explanation of demographic trends is very comprehensive, it does not seem to have been applicable to countries that are essentially agricultural where children contribute to family earnings rather than consuming them. Moreover, it is hard to think that an average couple in such societies would have had a control on their fertility behaviour due to reasons as simple as lack of awareness, means etc., or due to their traditional outlook itself.

Further, the Easterlin theory appears to have assumed women as passive subjects whose actions depended solely on their husband’s economic fortunes. As was said, “cohort size as a determinant of economic fortune applies primary to the experience of men” (Freeman 1979). Perhaps it is the Theory of Marriage Timing that successfully overcame this particular shortcoming by dealing with the issue more intelligently. In addition to giving importance to the economic prospects of young men, this theory provided insights into the marriage market search process that entails two complementary ways namely, assortative mating and adaptive socialization. Out of the two, it is assortative mating that dominates in the contemporary world, particularly among working women. According to this theory, where there are gender-differentiated roles at play, only one set of exogenous factors rules the matching process i.e. the man’s earning capacity and stability in job. This makes men not settled on their professional front unsuitable for marriage. However, where the women are also in long-term employment, two sets of exogenous factors (of both sexes) simultaneously come into picture making the search process all the more difficult and dependent on assortative mating. To add to it, since working women have a good bargaining power they tend to become more choosy and defer marriage for as long as find someone really suitable, however, this does not amount to saying that they lose interest in marriage. Nevertheless, it may not be wrong to say that working women are more prone to dissolving their marriage or controlling fertility. It is interesting to note here that marriages are likely to become more brittle, as postmarital socialization becomes less influential in improving the quality of married life thereby increasing marital instability. Another piece of research established a negative relationship between male wage inequality and female propensity to marry showing that rising wage inequality among men lowered the propensity to marry among white women aged 22-30 between one and three percentage points, between 7% and 18% of the total decline between 1970 and 1990.

Another possible reason for demographic changes could be found in the trend towards greater educational attainment among women. Proponents of home economics are of the view that it is the women’s growing investments in education as well as attachment with the labour market that leads to delay in their marriage and first motherhood in industrialized societies. However, research conducted in Germany showed that firstly education per se has no direct link with late marriage, and secondly what affects marriage timing among women is their extended status as a student that by normative norms of a society disqualifies them for marriage and motherhood. In other words, as long as women stay in education they are considered as ‘not ready’ for marriage and child birth thus affecting their marriage timing. The process of attaining higher levels of qualification infact tends to have a positive effect on the timing of first birth. As each successive level of education is connected with a woman’s increasing age, once married, the highly qualified women come under huge pressure to bear their first child as early as possible due to the fear of medical problems associated with conception after 30. As far as the impact of female employment is concerned, this research proved that confronted with a severe clash between their career and home, working women in Germany did try to postpone or even avoid their first pregnancy. This does not, however, mean that economic independence reduces the desirability of marriage . Parson’s views on sex specific division of labour and its advantage on marriage are rather simplistic. In the times that we are in today, unless we develop a model of marriage that’s dynamic, multidimensional and flexible enough to accommodate social changes, the institution of marriage is likely to be looked at with scepticism and doubt.

Furthermore, demographic swings can also be attributed to the diffusion of birth control pills among young women that provides women with a fool proof, easy-to-use and effective means to avoid pregnancy. A female controlled pill associated with fewer risks does encourage women to engage in careers. Infact, it leads to women empowerment in a much wider sense. By making it possible to enjoy sex without having to bother too much about marriage, the pill drastically reduces the opportunity cost of remaining single thereby creating ample scope for engaging in acquiring education and economic status . However, evidence from the US where decrease in marriage and fertility rates did not lead to vast increases of women in professional occupations has shown that the popularity of pill does not always result in a wider social change . That is, there need not be an unambiguous linear link between pill use, delay in marriage or first pregnancy, educational attainment and economic independence, as most of these trends tend to coincide with other.

Thus, to conclude one would say that it is perhaps about time that we discard our age old notion of an ‘ideal family’ to one that allows or more so appreciates women empowerment and its impact on the development of society, at large. This will not only enable us to approach the problem objectively, but also help in hitting the bull’s eye.

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