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VI.6 Nov.-Dec. 1999
Page: 32
Digital Citation

Social perspectives

Peter Cuyvers

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"A 'happy family' tops the list of life goals worth striving for"

Family values: despite a changing world, family life goes on much the same

The family is in trouble. Fathers and mothers, preoccupied with their careers, have less and less time for parental supervision. Children become insolent and aggressive and terrorize the street. People are losing their capacity for long-term family relationships. Many people choose to live alone; others are solitary who wish otherwise. In most European countries, the number of single-person households keeps growing.

This picture of the family as a declining institution, on its way to extinction, is in fact a myth, according to Peter Cuyvers. "It's pure cliché. Just look at the evidence and you will see the very opposite." Most singles either have had a family or hope to start one. According to a recent national survey, no less than 90 percent of the Dutch population wishes to establish a family, and 80 percent succeed in doing so at some point in their lives.

The family has scarcely lost ground as a cultural ideal, says Cuyvers. In every survey of young people's opinions, a "happy family" tops the list of life goals worth striving for. Relatively few adults are unwilling to commit themselves to a family relationship. The largest group of singles consists in fact of older widows and widowers. Other important categories are divorcees and young people still in search of a partner.

"Until the 1950s, only one life-plan was open to people. Once you decided to leave the nest, you were expected to get married and raise your own children," Cuyvers says. Sex, a relationship, independence and children were all part of the same package—traditional matrimony. Research shows that many people were willing to make do with a "suitable" match rather than a romantic one. By waiting too long for true love to arrive, you risked being left on the shelf.

Nowadays, people are more free to choose how they structure their lives. They can stay single, "live apart together" or set up a home with or without marrying. Children are optional too. "In the absence of any constraints, most people surprisingly enough choose the most expensive cohabitation model, that of the nuclear family. It costs them a fortune," says Cuyvers. "The family has become a voluntary institution. And when you choose something out of free will, you are willing to invest heavily in it."

The fast lane: the pace of daily life continues to accelerate

The family, he says, has become "emotionalized"—whereas before it was a more practical business. People now put off marriage until they have found a partner who really fits their dream. Instead of being an inevitable outcome of marriage, children are a carefully planned and lovingly cherished choice. According to the Social and Cultural Planning Bureau, Dutch parents have been spending more and more time with their children.

These findings are confirmed by a recent German study of 6,000 couples. Most mothers reduced their working hours after having a child; fathers cut back on time spent in the bar or playing sports, and used half the hours saved to work overtime in an effort to meet the expenses of family life. The remainder of the time saved was spent directly in the family circle. Even divorce statistics are less dramatic than they look. Although a third of all marriages in the Netherlands end in separation, only one in six breaks up when children are involved. Eighty-five percent of children are brought up by both biological parents—many more than is commonly assumed.

Nonetheless, the family is feeling the social strain. According to Cuyvers, as the family becomes more emotionally important, society is becoming more impersonal and businesslike. "The pace of daily life continues to accelerate, which places us all under unrelenting pressure," he says.

As more and more people go into higher education, the competition for attractive jobs or work grows fiercer. And as both parents pursue self-fulfillment in careers, family life comes under increasing stress.

Consumer culture also plays a significant part in putting a strain on family relations, Cuyvers believes. In a society where traditional class barriers have to a large extent disintegrated, material property is associated with self-esteem and social prestige. In her book The Overworked American, the economist Juliet Schor describes how Americans are having to work to exhaustion just to keep up with their neighbors. In a consumer society more and more luxuries are taken for granted—a large house, a second car, a second bathroom, foreign holidays, and so on. Anyone who lacks these status symbols is made to feel like a loser. According to Schor, many people work such long hours to pay for these "benefits" that their family life suffers. Schor notes a reaction against this mounting pressure of work in the form of "downshifters"—people who deliberately choose a less rewarding career in order to have more time for family and leisure. She estimates that some 20 percent of US employees have already eased off in this way.

"The mobile phone holds the family together"

At home: many parents are "downshifting" to spend more time with their families

Tension persists between the increasingly emotionally important family and an increasingly businesslike society. This, in Cuyvers' view, creates a demand for appliances that support emotional communication between family members. The success of the mobile phone is a good example of this, he believes. "Many members of the modern family have a mobile phone. Often, it's seen as a symbol of individualization. Its true purpose, though, is personal communication and interaction. The mobile phone holds the family together—you know where your fellow family members are at any time of day, and you can tell one another about what you have experienced."

Family members tend to disperse more widely as their level of education rises. The vast majority of European people with a minimum education live within walking distance of their parents. Those with higher education are considerably more mobile. Cuyvers' own son is studying in another city. "After an exam, he goes to town to celebrate with his friends. But he always phones home first to tell us how it went. This way, family members can express their feelings directly to one another however far apart they live."

Translation: Victor Joseph

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Interview: Peter Giesen

Photos: Jossy Albertus/Annabel Oosteweeghel UNIT CMA Thanks to Carp


Peter Cuyvers <> is a consultant at the Netherlands Family Council. He advises the national government on family matters and is a member of the European Observatory on Family Matters, a team of experts formed by the European Union.

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UF1Figure. Family values: despite a changing world, family life goes on much the same

UF2Figure. The fast lane: the pace of daily life continues to accelerate

UF3Figure. At home: many parents are "downshifting" to spend more time with their families

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©1999 ACM  1072-5220/99/1100  $5.00

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