The Australian Institute of Family Studies report on the state of Australian families released recently states that “Couple families with dependent children now form a minority of households”. This has lead newspapers and other media outlets around the country to bemoan the decline of the family. Considering that the basic nuclear family structure has been a fundamental unit of society for generations, it is not surprising that such a statistic is met with some alarm.
What is not showing up in these figures, and is not being celebrated, unfortunately, is the growth and evolution of the family. Far from being a decline of families, families now are adopting a new face, and are more reflective of the society which is shown in these statistical evaluations. The changing experience of young people shows that they are constructing their own “families”, not necessarily based on blood bonds, but more on the values and qualities which are traditionally associated with families, those of love and support.
Traditionally the family was a group of people, related to you biologically, who you could depend on for love, emotional and financial support, and with whom, for at least part of your life, you co-habited. They were people who taught you values, who had positive expectations for your life and who wanted the best for you. Anyone who has grown up in a troubled family will know that in reality the above qualities do not apply simply on the basis of someone being your blood relative.
Some of the problems associated with the traditional family can be understood when we acknowledge that the white picket fence has often been a veil for abuse and oppression, and that this is a monocultural idea of family. Family violence is an issue, which has only recently become an acceptable topic of public debate. For many years the priority, which our culture placed on the institution of the nuclear family, protected abusive parents, siblings and extended family. Breakdown of the family is not a matter to be mourned if it means saving a child or a partner from a lifetime of abuse in their own home.
Similarly, the values traditionally associated with the nuclear family have been a source of psychological oppression of young people who, as they grew up, realised their paths may not replicate that of their parents. The nuclear family is a very western and white ideal. Many other cultures, including Indigenous Australians, Middle Eastern and African families, often live in multi-family groups, or in extended multi-generation families.
If we accept the above factors, to generalise about “family values”, as our Federal Government is intending to do with their “family impact statements”, seems difficult at best, exclusive at worst.
Young people are growing up in a different family environment from that which influenced John Howard and most of our decision makers. The Institute of Family Studies report shows massive increases in the number of step and blended families, and lone parent families. Young people’s understanding of family is a lot more broad, inclusive and flexible than it ever has been. 10.7 per cent of families with a child under 18 are step or blended families, indicating that many young people are growing up in an environment which teaches them that family members are not necessarily related by blood. Similarly more children are growing up with same sex parents, stretching the bounds of the traditional family unit even further.
Adding to the change in attitudes is the gradual permissiveness in changing relationships which has taken place in our society over recent decades. It is more likely that young people will have a boyfriend, girlfriend or partner whom they do not intend to marry and with whom they will spend a significant amount of time. This person will be welcomed into their biological family as an equal, regardless of their long term intentions.
Having had their understanding of family opened up in this way, but still valuing the priorities of love and support which are traditionally associated with the family, young people, that is those between the ages of 18 and 30, are creating their own “families”. Young people are creating circles of support for themselves, which may include non-cohabiting partners, close friends and housemates. This flexible view of family relationships is also reflected in their understanding of family values. Hugh Mackay, in his book Generations: Baby Boomers, their Parents and their Children explains that the generation born in the 1970s “have grown up with the idea of flexible moral boundaries: they create and re-create moralities out of their more complex ways of relating to each other, and they are comfortable with a greater degree of flexibility than their parents or grandparents can easily tolerate”.
Traditionally a new partner or a new job would be discussed and evaluated with the help of the family: parents would screen potential friends and lovers. In more recent times these matters are discussed with and assessed by a group of friends, and, thanks to the privacy of mobile phones and the greater use of their own cars, relationships can be begun and conducted without the awareness of the biological family. The generation born in the 1970s are more independent than any generation in the past, with a higher level of tertiary education and often working in part time jobs from teenage years onwards. They have greater financial independence, and often spend some time living away from home.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics shows an increase in the number of group households, that is households made up of people without any relationships to each other, and a large number of these are people under the age of 35. This greater independence gives young people the psychological and financial freedom to create their own world, including their own circle of support, taking the place of the traditional family, and their own values.
Should John Howard and the Federal Government try to introduce family impact statements to evaluate legislation for the impact on the family, they will face the extremely difficult task of capturing the values that these statements should represent. Family values are flexible, fluid, culturally specific and constantly changing according to a concept of family that I am not sure a group of baby boomers and beyond can appreciate. There are different kinds of families, different kinds of values and different circumstances that the younger generation have no problem comprehending and incorporating into their worlds. The Government must heed the words with which Hugh Mackay concludes “Generations” as he says, “progress towards harmonious coexistence depends on our acknowledging that each of us is a product of the society which shaped us, and that homogeneity, if it ever existed, is a thing of the past”.