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Changes In The Australian Family Essay, Research Paper

Through interpreting the information in the table below, construct an argument that accounts for the trends in marriage and fertility rates. Give alternative explanations for changes in family structure.

Support your argument with information from the table and other evidence form you course.

Selected Family Trends in Australia Over Three Decades

Early 1970sLate 1990sRate of cohabitation prior to marriage15%60%Median age at first marriage (women/men)21/23.426/28Total fertility rate2.41.75Percentage of children born outside marriage10%26%Median age of mother at first child24 years29 years(Source: ABS, Various Years)

The family is a remarkably significant social unit. It is defined a group of individuals, related by blood, marriage, adoption or cohabitation (AIFS, 2001). In all known societies the family has the function of regulating sexual behaviour and reproduction, of socialization, of protecting children and the elderly, and of providing its members with emotional support, health and well being (Edgar et al., 1993).

Over the last few decades, family formation patterns have changed considerably in Australia. Contemporary family sociology has identified that family practices are also changing rapidly. Massive demographic change has signaled significant changes in family-form with family-households now considerably smaller. Moreover, there is evidence that the norms governing family life are also undergoing change, from being primarily obligational to negotiational. Changes in family networks and changes in the norms governing family life have considerable implications for the Australian family as a unit.

The table entitled, ?Selected Family Trends in Australia Over Three Decades?, taken from the Australian Bureau of Statistics in various tears, provides statistics relevant to these changes in the Australian family over the allocated period. In interpreting the table, it van be acknowledged that the figured have increased or decreased dramatically over the given thirty-year period.

Fertility is one of the components of population growth, as changes in fertility impact on both the size of the population and its structure. Declining fertility leads ultimately to an ageing population, which has policy implications for income support and the provision of health and community support services.

Today women are starting childbearing later in life and are having fewer children than ever before. Throughout this century, the crude birth rate has been declining although there have been fluctuations. As can be seen in the table, the birthrate has dropped from 2.4 children per woman in the early 1970s to only 1.75 children in the late 1990s. This 65% decrease has been linked to the increasing participation of women in the labour force coupled with changing attitudes to family size, changing standards of living and life-style choices (Birrell, 1987), as well as being attributed to the effortless availability of the contraceptive pill. However, the pill merely made ?…desired family size a practical and assured reality? (Browne, 1979).

In addition to the patent drop in fertility rates, there is also some evidence to suggest that they are concentrating their child bearing over a shorter span of years and that there is a shortened age range in which women are likely to bear children. This phenomenon, known as ?demographic compression?, is obvious to in the Family Trends table; the median age of a mother at the both of her first child having risen from 24 years in the early 1970s, to 29 years in the late 1990s.

These changes in fertility rates and age degree reflect women’s greater control over their fertility, regardless of age or marital status, as well as a tendency to postpone childbearing related to a desire to increased education and employment opportunities.

The terms nuptial and ex-nuptial births have become increasingly common in recent years. These terms refer to children born inside and outside of marriage, respectively. The statistics in the Family Trends table shows nuptial and ex-nuptial births having relative patterns of change in their numbers. According to table, in the early 1970s, only 10% of children were born outside of a married couple, however in the late 1990s, 26% percent of children have been born outside of matrimony.

The 16% increase began to occur when the contraceptive pill was first made available in Australia. Patterns between nuptial and ex-nuptial births began to deviate. Initially, use of the pill was largely restricted to married women. ?Some doctors were reluctant to prescribe for unmarried women unless they could justify a medical indication… advice to prevent pregnancy was considered immoral? (Siedlecky, et al., 1990). As the pill became more available, the numbers of ex-nuptial births began to decline, however, it increased again as the number of de facto relationships and single-parent families rose.

Due to the increasing number of births outside marriage and number of births in second or subsequent marriages, analysis of fertility patterns based on births in the current marriage only, no longer gives the complete picture of fertility in Australia.

Over the last 20 years the marriage rate in Australia has begun to decline. The number of registered marriages or weddings per thousand population gauges this trend. In 1998, the crude marriage rate was 5.9 marriages per thousand population (ABS, 2000). The marriage rate decline can be attributed mainly to changes in attitudes to marriage and living arrangements. Two contributing factors are that young people are staying in education systems for longer periods of time and the increasing incidence of de facto relationships and social acceptance of these relationships.

These aforementioned causes of prolonged education and increasing numbers of de facto relationships have also influenced the median age of first marriage. In the Family trends table a noticeable rise in age can be noted, from a calculated average of 22.2 years in the early 1970s to 27 in the late 1990s, attributed to society?s change in attitude regarding these issues.

De facto couples are those who live together but are not registered as married and who identify themselves as de facto in a relationship question (ABS, 1995). These couples have always existed, but remained largely unrecognised in family policy until recently. Legal and government systems are increasingly recognising, and taking into account, such living arrangements.

The number of incidences of de facto relationships, or cohabitation, prior to marriage has increased distinctly in recent years. As can be seen in the Family Trends table, in the early 1970s, a mere 15% of couples lived together before marriage, however in the late 1990s, over half, 60%, of couples had lived together before being married.

This dramatic change has come about for a number of reasons. Traditionally, registered marriage has been the path chosen by couples wishing to form a recognised partnership. However, with the ever-growing acceptance of de facto partnering has allowed it to arise as a precursor or alternative to first marriage; individuals may choose to live together before, or instead of, registering a marriage and may to have children outside a registered marriage.

The introduction of the Family Law Act in 1975 allowed divorce of marriages, and since its enactment, divorce rate has increased (Edgar et al., 1992). Over the last 20 years the divorce rate has fluctuated, generally showing a slight upwards trend. A recent study tracking relationships over time recorded a higher divorce rate among those who had cohabited, or lived as a de facto partnership, prior to marriage. However, the relationship between prior cohabitation and divorce is complicated by a number of factors, including, cultural differences, self-selection and the total duration of relationship. Cultural differences become a difficulty, as those who do not cohabit are more likely to come from particular religious or ethnic backgrounds, resulting in conflicting attitudes (AIFS, 2001). Those who cohabit are possibly less committed to marriage, and the increased likelihood of divorce with the total duration of the relationship, including both the married and de facto phases. For example, whether a couple married for 10 years is more or less likely to divorce than a couple who cohabited for three years and have been married for seven years.

In line with the increase in the age at which men and women marry, the age at which men and women divorce also increased. This is almost definitely due to the fact that with an increase in marriage age, there must a parallel in divorce; divorce cannot occur at stages when the couple in question is not in a married state. Divorce rates have also influenced the number of blended families.

The number of single-parent families, too, is rising considerably. These families may be permanent or temporary and may be formed as the result of: death of one partner; imprisonment of one partner; illness of one partner; single women choosing to have a child or children on their own; by the divorce of partners in a marriage; or by the break-down of a de facto relationship (Aspin, 1996). 9.7% of all families in Australia are single-parent families (Social Health Atlas, 2000), due to the aforementioned causes.

The formation of single-parent families has occurred for several reasons. Social factors are the first and foremost. The attitudes towards divorce and having children outside of marriage have changed over the last two decades, and therefore there is a rater acceptance of single-parent families (Aspin, 1996). In addition to this, the campaign of equal opportunity for women, and the emphasis on independence and personal fulfillment achieved through working outside the home, have allowed women to see themselves in a role other than that of wife and mother (Aspin, 1996).

Single-parenting figures have risen due to several reasons including an aspiration for higher educational qualifications; women have increased job opportunities and they are hence able to support their families. Technological advances in fertility treatments now make it possible and easier for single women to have children, and also, with the ease of divorce and social service benefits, single-parenthood is more appealing.

When consider the increase in single parent families and other changes in Australia?s family structure, applying different theoretical perspectives may assist in explanation. Considering the theoretical perspectives also aids in understanding of the family and analysis of the family’s current functioning.

Functionalist perspective outlines the family fulfils a range of functions in all societies, concerned with stability and social order. The perspective has long been the most dominant method of studying behaviour and drawn it inspiration form the works of Herbert Spencer, 1967, and Emile Durkheim, 1964, as well as contributions from Talcott Parsons and Robert Merton, 1968.

The functionalist perspective is very conservative; everyone has a certain position and certain functions, which are necessary for the maintenance of the social structure. Particularly expressed is the notion that men are instrumental ? financial support ? and women are expressive ? emotional support for children and husband. It focuses on men’s and women’s different but complementary roles in society. When related to the family, it focuses on the functions of the family within society, as well as concentrating on the functions or roles within the family.

As well as the functional imperatives of adaptation, goal attainment, integration, and pattern maintenance, stated by Parsons, the functionalist view theorises that the family also has basic functions. The regulation of sexual behaviour is under the influence of marriage and family. These institutions regulate sexual behaviour by specifying who may mate with who and the circumstances in which it is to take place. (Robertson, 1989.)

The replacement of members is also a function of the family, and is necessary in order for society to survive. The family provides a stable indtitutionalised means of replacing members from generation to generation, by specifying that people occupy different roles. (Robertson, 1989.)

Socialisation is another important function of the family. In order to become fully human, people must be socialised, and the family provides primary socialisation. Although in modern society much of the socialisation is taken over by other institutions, the family remains the first and foremost agent of socialisation, passing on language, values, norms, and beliefs of the culture. (Robertson, 1989.)

A family provides care, protection, warmth, food and shelter for its members, as well as taking care of those who, because of age or infirmity, cannot care for themselves. It also gives social placement to individuals; and individual inherits social status from family orientation, and provides emotional support, affection, nurture, intimacy and love for its members, being an ultimate emotional refuge. (Robertson, 1989.)

As can be assumed, the family is not a solitary agency for satisfying to aforesaid functions, however, the family performs them so proficiently and suitably, that it has been given principal responsibility for them in the majority known human cultures.

The problem with assigning functions to social institutions lie in the assumption that they constantly remain relevant to a society. In addition, in order to be correctly defined as functions, tasks must be in harmony with other needs and institutions, and this notion of the functionalist view denies the possibility of conflict. If it is acknowledged that institutions change through conflict in order to meet the family?s needs, new positions may appear. (Edgar et al., 1993.)

The conflict theory has developed largely from the work of Karl Marx, (1818 ? 83), who worked closely in collaboration with Frederick Engles, (1820 ? 95). The conflict perspective focuses on inequality, power, and social change, and on who benefits and who suffers from the existing social structures (Aspin?, 1996). Conflict always exists, so the issue is not to be evaded but discussed on how to manage conflict. Because the family regulates conflict, it may be used to support a social system that is not always serving the best interests of its members.

As a point of interest, the conflict theory is often see that the family is the most prominent institution for men to exercise dominance over women, and an economic determinism strand is also part of the theory.

Over the last two decades, there has been astonishing amount of family violence. One source of this violence may lie in the dynamics of the family. Intimate relationships, found in the family, are more susceptible to conflict, as they involve more occasions of interaction.

Conflict theorists such as Marx and Engles, challenged the traditional family roles and socialisation pattern in order to provide women with greater equality (Edgar et al., 1993.), and the conflict theory is at the basis of the feminist movement. Because of Marx?s impact, the conflict theory is often referred to as the ?Marxist view? and sometimes as ?article sociology?.

The Interactionist Perspective accentuates socialisation and social interaction and the attached roles; conflict can be minimized when situations in social relationships are actively shared and understood. The opinions and attitudes, etcetera, held by an individual as part of a family group, may not always reflect the realities of the wider society. (Edgar et al., 1993.) In the family, members all share the same culture. For this reason, meanings and norms are understood and positive interaction is a result.

The Interactionist Perspective is useful in application with small groups, such as the family, however they tend to ignore the realities of existing society and social structures, and the fact that am individual is born into these prerequisites. In addition to this, transmission of culture through socialisation process also tends to be neglected.

Feminist Perspective focuses on the problem of the domination of women by men. It states that the gender differences in the roles of women and men are of cultural origin and have been socially constructed. As was previously stated, it has been developed in reaction to the Marxist approach, as well as incorporating some elements of the functionalist view.

The feminist analysis of family emphasizes aspects of family organisation which are taken for granted in the alternative approaches, and challenges the assumption that the nuclear family, that is a family with two parents ? mother and father ? and two children, satisfactorily serves the needs of its members. It also questions the view that the oppression of women within the family is a consequence of the emergence of capitalism. (Furze et al., 1994.)

Sociologists, who have focused on the family as an institution, have used and adopted these theories in order to properly understand the family as part of a complex urban society. The various theories focus on different aspects of the social world and provide different kinds of explanations for the relationship between the family and other social institutions.

With the use of general sociology and the theoretical perspectives on family, in addition to studies such as those associated with the Family Trends table from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, it has been acknowledged that tendencies in the modern Australian family are quickly altering.

In modern Australian society, there are demographic changes in family-form, and family-households are now considerably smaller. The changes in family arrangement and changes in the values governing family life have significant consequences for the Australian family as a unit. Few women are having large families and marriage rate has declined, attributed mainly to changes in attitudes to marriage and living arrangements. There is increasing incidence of de facto relationships and social acceptance of these relationships. Divorce rate, too, has increased, influencing the number of blended-families and the number of single-parent families. These changes raise questions such as whether or not the family will survive in the twenty-first century, however at this present time, it is a fluctuating, but stable institution.

ReferencesAustralian Institute of Family Studies, (2001), Browne, E., (1979), The Empty Cradle, NSW University Press, Sydney, Australia.

Birrell, R. and T., (1987), An Issue of People, Second Edition, Longman Cheshire Pty Ltd, Melbourne, Australia.

Australian Bureau of Statistics – Commonwealth of Australia. Australia Now – Australian Social Trends 2000, Family – National summary tables 2000

Australian Bureau of Statistics – Commonwealth of Australia. Australia Now – Australian Social Trends 1995, Family – Family Formation: Trends in de facto partnering 2000

Edgar, D., Earle, L., and Fopp, R., (1993), Introduction to Australian Society, Second Edition, Prentice Hall, Australia.

Aspin, L.J., 1996, Focus on Australian Society, Longman, Pearson Education, Australia.

Social Health Atlas Series Volume 1: ?Family?, (2000) Fact sheet number 7: Australia, page 30-33

Furze, B., and Stafford, C., (1994), Society and Change: A Sociological Introduction to Contemporary Australia, Macmillan Education, Australia.


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