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Now & Next: How modern families increase inequality

Posted on 18 November 2019

A generation ago the family unit was considered a man, a woman and two or three children. Now, the concept of family has been transformed, but what is the impact of these developments in wider society? Family has changed – but will it survive?

How modern families increase social inequality

The Economist

Supported by

Mishcon de Reya

The family has always been a central building block of society.  But families have changed dramatically in the rich world over the past 50 years.

You may kiss your wonderful life partner and your wife.

He knows he has a donor, he knows that we are both his parents, he knows he doesn’t have a dad and all of that, it is just normal.

Changes to society mean that the old model of a breadwinning husband and a stay at home wife has all but collapsed.

A single mum support my own children is the normal nowadays

And the different way rich and poor families raise their children are increasing social inequality.

We are basically paying for pre-school what I paid for college.


Family Fortunes

50 years ago families didn’t look like this.

We are so gay, we work together, live together…

…and love it.

Today gay families like Maggie and Joelle’s are widely accepted in the rich world.

There are so many gay families in San Francisco.  It’s amazing. It is becoming increasingly normalised. 

Who is in this photo?

 A generation ago it was almost unthinkable that same sex couples would get married.

Look at this one.

This one is really pretty, I love this one.

You’re pretty.

Look at this one.

But now most people in rich countries think gay marriage is fine.

I really, really wanted our families to accept our marriage as a marriage and not just like a girlfriend and I think until that time, I swear I think my family just thought I was in a phase for you know, 15 years.

You were right, the wedding definitely had that effect on our families.  They are in it with us now.

Fears that gay marriages would undermine heterosexual ones have proven unfounded and this is one reason why marriage equality has spread so extraordinarily fast.  Before 2001 gay marriage was not legal anywhere in the world.  Since then it has been legalised in nearly all rich countries and developing nations are starting to follow suit.

In California the right to get married was on and off but I think two months before our wedding was when it became permitted so that was the big part of our ceremony.

It’s a far cry from the 1960’s, when families typically consisted of a dad who went to work, a stay at home mum and three or more kids.  Better access for women to contraception, education and jobs has changed this traditional family portrait.

Across the globe, families are shrinking.  Nowhere more so than in South Korea.  Here a growing number of women are rejecting marriage and having children altogether like Go Lee who is 26. 

It’s Thursday night and I am with my friends.

Like many South Korean women, Go and her friends are well educated.

We’re going to have Mexican food which is my favourite and maybe go to karaoke after this.

She says traditional employers make it hard to combine a career with marriage and motherhood.

I decided not to get married because first, career-wise when I had my first job there was a senior colleague whom I respected a lot.  She was devoted to work initially.  Suddenly she switched focus to her family and I saw her having a career break and her career stalled.

Go works in IT, but is also a vlogger on YouTube, where she urges South Korean women to be more assertive.

The problem is that the way you hold yourself is gender specific.  Women tend to be more passive and confined in the way they stand.

She believes South Korean men are part of the problem.  Many expect their wives to do all the housework and childcare, even if they have a job.

The old patriarchal society in South Korea is the fundamental reason why many South Korean women in their 20’s and 30’s like me, are choosing not to get married.

Men view women as an ‘assistant’.  At home, women need to be the homemaker and feed the family.

There is a huge mismatch of expectations around marriage in South Korea.  Most men want a 1950’s style relationship whereas women want something more modern and equal.  The result is they often end up not marrying or having kids at all and that has left South Korea with a problem.  Its population is in free fall.

In 1960 the average South Korean woman had six children.  In 2018 that figure shrank to less than one.  A fertility rate of one means each generation is half as big as the previous one and in South Korea this means there are fewer workers to support the country’s aging population.

In rural areas, men are viewed as poor prospects by South Korean women so the Government is helping these men to find brides from poorer countries.  State funded assimilation centres like this, teach immigrant brides how to cook Korean food, how to speak Korean and even how to deal with Korean mother’s-in-law.

Say it with me.

Like most of her classmates studying here today, 19 year old Wen Ti Cam Toy is from Vietnam.  She recently married a South Korean man, 40 year old Kim Dae Hyun who found her through a matchmaking website.

I saw my wife’s picture around September and knew that she was the one.  I contacted the agency and went to Vietnam.

Over a fifth of married South Korean farmers and fisherman have tied the knot with a foreigner.

We got married last October on the 30th and we are enjoying married life in South Korea.  We don’t have any children yet.

But cross-cultural unions can be difficult and around a fifth of marriages between South Korean men and foreign women end in divorce within four years.

This video of a man beating his foreign wife caused widespread outrage.  50 years ago in most rich countries domestic violence was considered normal.  Now it is universally condemned and rates have fallen sharply by three-quarters in America alone, since the mid-1990’s.

Today, other factors are more likely to affect the stability of families and these are contributing to a growing gulf between middle class and working class families.  In most rich countries if you don’t go to University you are more likely to have kids outside of marriage and women who don’t finish High School are more likely to end up as single mothers than women who have a Degree.

I’m a single mum because at 20 weeks pregnant dad decided that he didn’t want to be around no more.  So I let him walk.  It was easier to let him walk then than it was for him to actually build an attachment with the kids and then walk.

In Jamie’s home town of Hartlepool in north east England, 70% of babies are born outside marriage, like her twins, Sean and Liam.

I am the sole earner of the household, without my income - and my kids interrupting me, oh get him, fetching me cucumbers because they’re awesome – it can be a financial struggle – cucumber’s lovely.

In Hartlepool in the 1960’s men did heavy work in shipyards and factories which was much better paid than any job their wives could find.  So the women stayed at home with the kids.  But as technology advances manual work has dried up and uneducated men have struggled to find good jobs.

Everything industrial here in Hartlepool is gone.  There is nothing left.  What comes with industrial decline?  Poverty, depression, anxiety, family break-ups, marriages separating, suicide, there’s all sorts that come because people feel they can’t provide for their family.

If the only men available lack steady jobs and don’t help around the home some women feel they are better off alone.

It can be hard to be a man.  I presume it would be hard you know, having to step back a little bit and realise that you might not be the breadwinner and that you are actually having to rely on a woman to feed the family and keep the roof over their head.  So yeah, it can be hard for a man.

Middle class families have remained solid in rich countries over the past 50 years.  While working class families have grown much less stable.  Women with a University Degree are more likely than women who do not finish High School to be married and raise children with their husband as a team. 

And this is contributing to a growing social divide.  A divide that is increasingly apparent in the very different ways middle and working class families are raising their children.  Although American fathers from all backgrounds do much more child care than the previous generation, today wealthier fathers spend much more time with their kids than their poorer counterparts do.

Most of the weekdays for example, my wife takes care of them, taking them to school, picking them up and then when I come from work, I feed them, I play with them a little bit, give them their bath and put them to sleep and during the weekends we switch a little bit.

My husband always comes back home and takes care of like dinner sometimes or breakfast during the weekend so it is a very like 50/50 I would say.

Harvard educated Gerardo shares the child care duties with his wife, Perla who also studied there.  The couple are investing time and money on stimulating their children intellectually.

We do take her to, for example, like abacus classes after school where she is starting to learn how to do additions, subtractions and sometimes we come home and do a little bit of extra work.

By the age of three the children of professional families have heard 30 million more words than children from poorer backgrounds.

From zero to five it is very important that you spend time with your kids.  From there it is like you feel they already have the values ingrained.

A child’s early years are the most important for cognitive development so children of processionals have a head start long before they start school.  The pushy middle class style of raising kids is sometimes called intensive parenting.

Sean Reardon

Professor of poverty and inequality in education

Stanford University

So intensive parenting is the idea that parents are investing an enormous amount of time and energy in their children’s development early on.

Sean Reardon is a Professor of poverty and equality in education at Stanford University and has studied the influence of class on parenting and how well kids do in school.

Sean Reardon

Professor of poverty and inequality in education

Stanford University

It’s as if you thought of your child as an orchid, a delicate flower that needs daily attention as opposed to thinking of your child in the way that parents used to think of their children as a tree or a bush, we don’t water the trees or the bushes, they… it’s in their nature to grow and barring any sort of catastrophe they’ll do just fine.

Middle class parents not only talk more to their children and take them to ballet, chess and extra maths classes, they also compete to get them into the best schools.

Actually her school is less than a mile from here and it is a bilingual school.  They have teachers full-time Mandarin and full-time English and all of them have Master’s Degrees and very high level education.

Gerardo and Perla’s daughter Elizabeth is learning five languages including Mandarin.

I think going to the school she’s going to be more open to learning and talking with people, like turning around and speaking Mandarin and turning around and speaking Spanish.

Elizabeth how do you sing happy birthday in Chinese?

But all this education doesn’t come cheap.  Elizabeth’s pre-school costs $31,000 a year.

Definitely costs of day care and pre-school have been way more than we expected originally.


We are basically paying for pre-school what I paid for college.

Sean Reardon

Professor of poverty and inequality in education

Stanford University

So in the richest communities in the United States the average student scores three to four grade levels above the national average and in the poorest communities the average student scores may be two to three grade levels below the national average.  So the difference in performance is a result of differences in opportunities.

A gulf is growing between wealthy families that stick together and raise high achieving kids and blue collar families that struggle to do either.  This gap is about much more than money.  Well educated men are more likely than in the past to marry highly educated women.  The children of these clever parents are more likely to be clever and the children of stable families are more likely to raise stable and high achieving families of their own

Sean Reardon

Professor of poverty and inequality in education

Stanford University

As you get a society that’s more divided economically and educationally you increasingly run the risk of having a society that doesn’t have empathy for other parts of itself.  The risk is you end up with a kind of more socially and economically polarised society as a result of this.

Well educated families have become success factories, passing on their advantages to their kids.  By contrast many poorer children grow up with no first-hand experience of what a stable family looks like.

As men and women have grown more equal over the past 50 years, families have grown much less so.


Supported by

Mishcon de Reya

The Economist

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