The Disturbing Truth about the Modern Family

1st Aug, 2014

In this week’s blog, Executive Director Michael Brennan looks at the modern family – and asks why we focus on a mythical golden age rather than the real challenges and opportunities families face today.

Yesterday morning saw the latest Trajectory Trends Breakfast. We were delighted to play to a full house with the level of interest reflecting an enduring fascination with family dynamics.

And indeed we have a very strong family relationship with the subject – the image above highlights the seminal work of Peter Willmott & Michael Young in exploring Family & Kinship in the East End -with the original 1957 book being republished as a Penguin Modern Classic in 2007.

While that work (and especially the related 1992 New East End publication) is not without its critics it does introduce some powerful and relevant points, not least the positive role of communications technology in the absence of family co-habitation and propinquity. Today, and as observed by our audience many family networks have become globalised, for reasons including economic migration and overseas study – making the role of technology ever more important.

The disturbing truth that we shared and discussed yesterday is in fact incredibly simple. There never was a golden age of the family and today’s reality is as good as it has ever been.

Families have always had to make compromises between their perceived ideals and the practical realities of life and especially work. Indeed the enduring interest in the family can be seen as a reflection of a society’s relative comfort with its priorities and focus.

So not only has there never been a golden-age of the family – and we looked at the historic picture in terms of single parent families, teenage mothers  and divorce rates as well as related legislative changes – we went on to argue that the family today is in rude health.

We can validate that point with reference to time-use analysis and particularly the time that parents spend with their children today – which is directly related to another positive role of technology in terms of the reduction of time spent on household chores due to labour-saving devices.

Both elements feed into the increased numbers of women in the workplace and the impact that this has had on modern family life – indeed the vastly reduced portion of a woman’s life spent in the family stage overall is one of the key demographic trends we considered –  in tandem with declining fertility rates and increased life expectancy.

The latter two combining to create today’s Vertical Family structure – which introduces the critical role played by many grand-parents in sustaining the modern family.

Finally we touched on why there is a common belief that the UK is a ‘Broken Society’ – including class, gender, race or religious biases – but most importantly an out-dated view of young people.

The simple fact is, and we have argued this at length, the Kids are Alright. Our next Breakfast will develop this thinking by taking an in-depth look at Generation Y in the UK today.

Don’t mistake the above for a naïve belief that everything is OK – we discussed the disproportionate impact of austerity measures on the family and the urgent need for quality, affordable childcare for all for example but we do want to put the issue of problem families into context.

The government believes that there are 120,000 families who fall into this category – that is 0.7% of all family households in the UK. Given the extensive range of issues involved these families require targeted and sustained support in order to offer their children a better future – but that recognition and those needs should not be allowed to dominate our understanding of the modern family – let alone the allocation of resources.

Why don’t we celebrate and champion the commitment of mothers and families across the country in striving to do their best for their children – often in incredibly difficult circumstances – without adding another layer to their anxiety through our so-called moral judgement?