American Culture

Family

Family Structure

The average American family has classically been understood as a nuclear family (husband, wife and children) with extended family living separately. While the nuclear family structure is still common today, it can no longer be an exact social expectation as divorce, remarriage, cohabitation of couples and births outside of marriage have become more common.1,2 For example, one in six American children under the age of 18 lived with a half sibling in 2014 and almost a quarter (23%) lived in single-parent households as of 2019.3,4 Family structures can also vary significantly between different ethnicities and races in America. For example, black children are far more likely to be raised in single parent households than Asian, white and Hispanic children.5,6,7


The size of immediate families have declined over time as American women have had fewer children. Today, the common cultural preference in America is to have a small family unit with extended family living separately. However, Asian, black and Hispanic families are more likely to live in multigenerational arrangements and have larger households than non-Hispanic white Americans.8,9 



Family Dynamics

Individualism influences many American family dynamics. There is a pervading cultural idea that you are what you make of yourself and who you choose to be. Therefore, people are expected to be self-reliant and personally responsible for their choices. For example, it is relatively common for American parents to a emphasise a child’s independence and support their pursuit of personal aspirations, even if they differ from the family’s preconceived expectation. Similarly, American school systems often teach children to think of themselves as ‘special’ or ‘unique’ as they grow up.

 

The cultural emphasis on independence also sees many elderly Americans choose to live alone, preferring to be self-reliant in their old age rather than ‘burdening’ the younger generations of their family by living with them. The average adult over 60 only lives with one other person (usually a spouse).10 Similarly, many children feel an obligation to be financially independent and not rely on their parents as adults. There is a general social expectation that their children leave home within a few years of finishing high school or college. However, this norm has been subject to change following tough economic periods (such as the global financial crisis). It was estimated roughly 20% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 lived with their parents in 2018.11


Gender Roles

American society has traditionally viewed men as the breadwinners of the family, while women were seen as the homemakers and primary caretakers of children. However, such attitudes towards female gender roles have changed significantly since the mid 20th century. For example, there’s now almost universal support for female participation in the labour force and political office.12 The share of female household breadwinners and women-owned businesses has been consistently growing.13 American women have also been attaining higher levels of education, exceeding the male average in many cases (especially among the younger generations).14 In fact, in 2012 it became more common for the wife to have more education than the husband among opposite-sex married couples.15 


However, while women enjoy equal rights and the opportunity to choose their form of contribution to the household dynamic, traditional views on family and household duties prevail. As a result, women on average earn less and have reduced work hours in order to be the primary caretakers of children. There are also discrepancies of opportunity between women of different races and ethnicities in the United States. For example, Native American and Hispanic women are the least likely to hold at least a bachelor’s degree.16 Meanwhile, black women are more likely to be in the labour force and the primary breadwinners of their families in addition to caring for children – spurred by very high rates of single motherhood.17


Dating and Marriage

Dating

American dating practices are similar to those of other English-speaking western cultures. It is common for couples to meet though their social circles, workplaces or hobbies. Online dating services are popular amongst several age groups. Younger people may use free apps for casual dating, whilst middle-aged adults or elderly people looking to find serious or long-term partners tend to prefer dating websites that require paid membership.

 

Dates usually happen in contexts that allow the couple to engage in enough conversation to get to know one another (for example, over a meal or drink). It is common for an American to ‘date’ or get to know multiple people at once over a period of time without having an exclusive relationship with any of those people. However, if feelings develop for a particular person, an American will often pursue that one person until he or she agrees to be in a committed relationship with them or indicates a lack of interest.


Marriage

Most Americans regard marriage as a couple’s commitment to their personal love for one another, rather than an economic or social union or family arrangement. However, it is becoming less of an essential feature of American families. More Americans are marrying later in life, living with an unmarried partner (cohabitation) and having children whilst still unmarried. For example, the percentage of all births to unmarried women was 39.6% in 2018.18 According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median age of first marriage in 2019 to be 29.8 for men and 28 for women (an increase of more than 5 years of age since the 1980 average).19 


Studies show that most young American adults now cohabit with their partner instead of moving in with them at marriage, and fewer cohabitations transition to marriage.20 For example, some couples choose not to legally marry and remain in a de facto partnership whilst maintaining the same function and relationship as a married couple. An exception is for LGBTQI+ couples, who are marrying at higher rates since the legislation of same-sex marriage in 2015.21


Despite the changing cultural approach to partnership, marriage is still regarded as a meaningful and highly valued institution in America. The divorce rates are also in steady decline, falling from 4.0 divorces per 1000 people in 2000 to 2.9 in 2018.22 Families that uphold religious or conservative values may view marriage as a necessity to a stable family structure and expect strong couples to wed before having any children. 


1 Pew Research Center, 2015

2 Vanorman & Jacobsen, 2020

3 Knop, 2020

4 Kramer, 2019

5 Pew Research Center, 2015

6 Prince, 2016

7 Jaynes, 2018

Fry, 2019

9 Pew Research Center, 2015

10 Kramer, 2019

11 Kramer, 2019

12 Miller, 2020

13 Status of Women in the States, 2015

14 Berman, 2015

15 Wang, 2014

16 IWPR, 2013

17 Pew Research Center, 2015

18 Martin, Hamilton, Osterman & Driscoll, 2019

19 U.S. Census Bureau, 2019

20 Guzzo, 2014

21 Byron, 2019

22 CDC/NCHS National Vital Statistics System, 2018

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