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11.2: Family Changes

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    Learning Outcomes
    • Differentiate among the different stages of a family’s life cycle.
    • Explain some of the common problems researchers have identified with family life cycle approaches.

    One of the fascinating parts of the study of interpersonal relationships in families is that they are always changing. As the dynamics of a family change, so do the communication networks. For example, a family that starts with a pair of committed adults suddenly becomes a group when they either have their first child, foster their first child, adopt their first child, etc. With the addition of one other life into the family household, the nature and dynamics change almost overnight.

    Family Life Cycle

    The notion that families go through systematic cycles that resemble other families is nothing new.39 Early research attempted to focus on the differences in families between those that existed in rural and urban settings. One such researcher, Charles Loomis, broke families down into four general categories:

    1. Childless couples of child-bearing age
    2. Families with children under the age of 14
    3. Families with at least one child over the age of 14 but under 36
    4. Old families.

    Other characteristics that Loomis found could impact the family life cycle were those from the addition of both parents’ children and non-parental children (nieces, nephews, etc.). Of course, the age breakdown shown by Loomis primarily had to do with work. Generally, children under the age of 14 were not considered fully capable of work; whereas, those over the age of 14 were considered work-aged. You’ll also notice that stage three is generally viewed as the time when a family has the most working adults within the family unit. At this time, especially in rural America, it was assumed that adult children would stay on the homesteads and help with the upkeep and day-to-day duties, whether it was a farm or ranch. These were multi-generational endeavors. Eventually, a family became “old,” and the next generation continued the cycle by having their children keep the homesteads running.

    Of course, our understanding of how families function has changed quite a bit since the 1930s. Studying family life cycles has been a consistent endeavor across generations of family scholars. For our purposes, we are going to discuss the more recent family life cycle, discussed by David Weaver and Laura Lawton, along with some problems inherently associated with this type of research.40

    Understanding how families generally function is essential for scholars because it lets us know what major events in someone’s life can be predicted. For our purposes, we are going to quickly examine David Weaver and Laura Lawton’s Family Life Cycle (Figure 11.2.1).

    49602101286_77528045bd_w (1).jpg
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Family Life Cycle

    Young Singles

    The first stage of any family starts when single people enter in the world and start looking for potential partners. Most people begin to think about this stage when they are around 18 years of age and enter into the world outside of their parents/ guardians’ house. They go out looking for potential partners through dating and eventual mating. However, we know that in our modern world, this isn’t always how this works.

    Young Couples (No Children)

    Eventually, a couple starts to self-identify as a couple. In today’s modern world, we see the couple stage as one that exists with no children. During this time, the focus of the couple is often on developing themselves by going to college or starting a career. Some marketers refer to a couple at this stage as “dinks,” dual incomes, no kids. As you can imagine, dinks are often sought out by marketers because they generally have a higher expendable income level compared to those who do have children or are just starting out.

    As couples come together, they enter into a period that many family scholars call third-culture building. Each member of the couple brings with her/him/them a distinct cultural background and upbringing. The more distinct the cultural differences, the easier it is to see where these differences are. For example, maybe you have a couple where one was raised in the Middle East and the other in South America. These two distinct parts of our world have countless numbers of cultural differences that even outsiders can quickly pinpoint. However, all couples’ members can come from different cultural backgrounds, even if the cultures themselves are very similar. For example, you could have a Baptist and a Methodist who were both born and raised in the same town in rural Louisiana. Generally speaking, there may be some minor cultural differences between these two people because of denominational distinctions in their Christian upbringing. Still, these differences aren’t huge (though some may overexaggerate them). But even in these cases where people are very similar, there will be cultural differences that exist that must be dealt with as the couple comes together

    When a couple negotiates their cultural background with the cultural background of their partner, they are building a new “third-culture.” Sometimes these cultural differences can be very small. Maybe one member of the couple always opens presents on Christmas Day, and the other member of the couple always opens presents on Christmas Eve. The couple could decide to open one present on Christmas Eve and the rest on Christmas Day. In this case, the couple has negotiated their cultural differences to create a new pattern. Other cultural differences can be much larger. In our example of the couple from the Middle East and South America, we could have the need to negotiate the religious upbringing of a children in the Islamic and Roman Catholic faiths. Maybe the couple is atheist, and will not include any kind of religious teaching into the rearing of children, or the couple could opt for some type of combination of both. It’s also entirely possible that one member of the couple will convert to the other member’s religion to ensure religious upbringing in a specific faith.

    Ultimately, third-culture building is a unique part of any couple. Some couples will have fairly minor cultural differences to negotiate, while other couples could have very large cultural differences to negotiate. The important part is that this is a negotiation by the couple.

    Full Nest One (Pre-School Children)

    Once a couple decides to involve children, Weaver and Lawton break this phase into three distinct categories or stages depending on the age of the children. The first stage with children (full nest one) occurs when a couple has pre-school aged children. Pre-school age children require more parental oversight. We also see couples with children starting to associate more and more with other couples who also have children, which can cause changes to a couple’s social network. Other couples may become very dependent on both their nuclear and extended family for child-rearing help. In contrast, others depend on paid help in the forms of nannies or daycare facilities. When the initial couple consists of dual-income earners, these extended networks become paramount for the ability of the couple to maintain their occupations.

    Full Nest Two (School-Aged Children)

    In full nest two, the couple has children who are now in school. Once kids go to school, a good chunk of their day is spent in the care of adults outside of the nuclear or extended family. For this reason, the traditional workday tends to be somewhat more flexible for these parents/guardians, but their evenings and weekends are often filled with family functions. As children grow older, parental oversight and direction become less necessary, but children also start taking on their own busy lives and schedules that often conflict with their parents/guardians’ lives and schedules.

    Full Nest Three (Older Children)

    In full nest three, the couple’s children are older and more and more independent; however, they are still somewhat dependent upon their families for food and shelter. As children try to increasingly demand their own identities apart from their parents/guardians, parent/guardian-child relationships are often fraught with various degrees of conflict. On the one hand, you have parents/guardians who have been in a parental oversight role for many years, and on the other, you have children who are seeking their own independence and autonomy. Finding the balance between these polarizing forces is often easier said than done for many families.

    Empty Nest One (Still Working, Launched Children)

    The next stage is empty nest one, which happens once children are launched, but the parents/guardians are still working. The launching stage occurs when late adolescents leave the parental home and venture out into the world as young singles themselves. Historically, late adolescents started the launching stage when they exited the home and went off to college.

    However, it’s possible that going to college is only a partial-launch. In today’s world, many adolescents go off to college and then after college find it almost impossible to function in many large cities on a single salary, so they end up back at home living with their parents/guardians. At the same time, adolescents seek to achieve economic security, but some find it impossible to do so, depending on what’s going on within our economy. For example, after the economic downturn of 2008, many recent college graduates had a tough time finding entry-level jobs because they were competing against people with decades of experience who had lost their jobs and desperately needed work (even entry-level work). As I’m writing this, we’re seeing the same problem once again as a result of the 2020 Pandemic.

    As I’m writing this sentence, we’re just at the beginning of the global economic disaster stemming from the COVID-19 outbreak of 2019-2020. Many experts are predicting that we could be looking at a period of economic unease not seen since the Great Depression started in 1929. If this economy does dive into a depression, we’ll see more and more late adolescents forced to live longer and longer with their parents/guardians out of economic necessity. Although it was simply too early, in March 2020, to tell what would happen, experts predicted that 80 million jobs are at moderate to high risk of disappearing (more than half the jobs in the U.S. today).41 By the height of the first wave, around 31 Million U.S. Citizens were filing for unemployment as a result of COVID-19.42

    Eventually, most parents/guardians will experience a period when their adult children have launched, and the parents/guardians, themselves, are still working

    Empty Nest Two (Retired)

    Empty nest two occurs once both parents/guardians have decided to retire. Now, retirement is one of those options that may not be viable for everyone, so some couples never end up in empty nest two as a necessity. Other couples spend almost the last third of their lives in retirement. In many ways, couples in retirement have a lot of the same flexibility they had when they were young couples.

    Solitary Survivor (Retired)

    The typical final stage in the family life cycle is when one partner passes away, leaving the other partner on her/his/their own. In essence, an individual suddenly finds her/him/themself older, and yet again, single.

    Problems with Life Cycle Research

    Probably the most apparent problem with the traditional approach to the family life cycle is that it does not take into account a wide range of differing family possibilities. For example, Elisa Backer noted several other options that could exist outside of the traditional family cycle:

    • Young singles (less than 35 years old)
    • Young couples (no children) (female less than 35 years old)
    • Gay couple (no children)
    • Gay couple (with children)
    • Older couple (no children) (female 35+ years of age)
    • Older retired couple (no children from current marriage)
    • Age-gap couple (children from current relationship; with or without children from previous relationship)
    • Age-gap couple (no children from current relationship; with or without children from previous relationship)
    • Older divorced single (no children)
    • Single parent (children still at home)
    • Older single (never been married, no children) (35+ years old)
    • Couple with pre-school children (youngest child not at school)
    • Couple with school-aged children (youngest child at school) • Couple with older children (all children finished school)
    • Empty Nest I (still working, children left home)
    • Empty Nest II (retired, children left home)
    • Widower (widower who is not working and partner is deceased)
    • Widower (still working)43

    Another commonly discussed problem with this approach to understanding the family life cycle is that many individuals do not walk through the family life cycle in an exact sequence. For example, someone could be single, get married, get divorced, get married again, have a child, lose a partner, get remarried, have another child (one child is pre-school age one is recently launched), etc. Suddenly, we’ve gone from a path that seems highly “normalized” and straightforward to one that contains a lot more uncertainty and diversions from the typical path of “family.”

    As a whole, family life cycles are an excellent tool for having a general understanding of how many families function within society, but many families do not experience the life cycle as a linear process from singlehood to death.

    Key Takeaways
    • David Weaver and Laura Lawton’s Family Life Cycle consists of eight distinct stages: 1) young singles, 2) young couples (no children), 3) full nest one (preschool children), 4) full nest two (school-aged children), 5) full nest three (older children), 6) empty nest one (still working, launched children), and 7) empty nest two (retired).
    • Although the concept of family life cycles is a useful tool for examining families, there are some inherent limitations to this approach. First, the life cycle doesn’t allow for different types of family units. Additionally, many individuals do not walk through the family life cycle in an exact sequence.
    • Use the idea of a family life cycle to map out the cycle of a famous family. You want to choose a family that has completed the full cycle to make this activity easier. Once you’ve mapped out the family, answer the following questions. Did the life cycle fit this family? How easy was it to determine the different parts of the family life cycle? What critiques would you have of the applicability of the family life cycle approach to this specific family?
    • Think about your own family’s life cycle. Attempt to plot out the life cycle of your family through at least three generations: your grandparents (or equivalent), your parents (or equivalent), and yourself and any siblings (or equivalent).

    This page titled 11.2: Family Changes is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Jason S. Wrench, Narissra M. Punyanunt-Carter & Katherine S. Thweatt (OpenSUNY) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.