In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Contemporary Family Issues

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Resources and Databases
  • Textbooks
  • Theoretical Foundations
  • The Rise of the Dual-Earner Family
  • Families at Home
  • Families at Work
  • Families and the State
  • Gender, Families, and Domestic Work in Cross-National Context

Sociology Contemporary Family Issues
Leah Ruppanner
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 March 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 March 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0122


Contemporary families face a host of unprecedented issues. One of the major lingering sociological puzzles is the persistent gendered distribution of family responsibilities in Western industrial nations. This article provides a general overview of gender and families across a range of dimensions. Initially, a general overview is provided of the demographic transitions shifting family forms. This identifies the rise of cohabiting unions and divorce and delayed fertility and marriage. The multiplicity of new family forms emerges in response to shifting demographic, economic, and social constraints. Across much of this research, a consistent conclusion is drawn: families today are more fragile than in the past, with inequality in life chances, poverty, and well-being unequally distributed across socio-demographic groups. Yet family experiences are not equally distributed by gender, with women accounting for the brunt of the family work. This article identifies major findings in this area. In addition to these individual experiences, scholars focus on the institutional approaches to address these inequalities in modern families. Families’ needs are shifting throughout the life course, impacted by the rise of the dual earner and the consequences of demographic transitions placing unprecedented child and elder care needs on families. This research identifies variation in welfare state approaches to contemporary family issues with emerging research empirically assessing the link between individual-level experiences and institutional resources. This article introduces these general demographic and institutional changes across one general theme: the gender and family issues. The persistence of the gender distribution of family responsibilities is a central area in sociological research. Although a growing body of research assesses family change in non-Western nations, this overview focuses on families in Western industrial nations. The major findings across these dimensions are highlighted here.

General Overviews

A number of works provide key overviews of various aspects of contemporary family life. Given the multidimensional nature of modern families, these works provide an overview for specific areas of modern family life. Some focus on the demographic transitions that structure modern family forms, as is the case with Lesthaeghe 1995 and McLanahan 2004. Others focus on the changing marital outcomes, as in Cherlin 1981 and Bumpass, et al. 1991. Additional attention is paid to divergent outcomes associated with these new family forms, notably the rise of single parents as described by McLanahan 2004. Finally, others identify variation in welfare state approaches to families, as is the case with Esping-Andersen 2013.

  • Bumpass, L. L., J. A. Sweet, and A. Cherlin. 1991. The role of cohabitation in declining rates of marriage. Journal of Marriage and the Family 913–927.

    DOI: 10.2307/352997

    Expanding upon Cherlin’s earlier work, this article identifies the importance of cohabitation in explaining declining marriage rates. Whereas historically cohabitation was utilized among the poor to benefit from economies of scale, this piece identifies that cohabitation is increasingly common among all socio-demographic groups albeit with differences by income. Specifically, they identify cohabitation as a distinct relationship status characterized by the presence of children. Although most couples expect to marry at some point and report lower relationship stability, so-called cohabiting couples, especially among the poor, is a distinct status.

  • Cherlin, A. J. 1981. Marriage, divorce, remarriage. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    Provides the foundation for research on transitions into and out of marriage. This book identifies new patterns of cohabitation, marriage, divorce, and remarriage. Situating these experiences in a historical context, Cherlin documents that marital patterns shift over the life course, with unprecedented transitions that were not observed by previous generations. The reasons for these transitions are explored here, including documenting that marital trends in the 1950s were atypical. This piece provides historical context and sociological explanations for the marital patterns evident in modern society.

  • Esping-Andersen, G. 2013. The three worlds of welfare capitalism. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

    This piece is a seminal work in defining variation in welfare states cross-nationally. Specifically, the author identifies three main welfare state clusters: liberal, corporatist-statist, and social democratic. The typology provides an initial classification of Western welfare states. The author identifies important indicators of welfare variation including economic, historical, and social differences. This piece provides the initial foundation for welfare state typologies that is expanded in supplemental work.

  • Lesthaeghe, R. 1995. The second demographic transition in Western countries: An interpretation. In Gender and family change in industrialized countries. Edited by Karen Oppenheim Mason and An-Magritt Jensen, 17–62. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This paper identifies the second demographic transition in Western countries and provides a temporal overview of demographic changes beginning in 1955. This text identifies the demographic characteristics associated with modern marriage and family forms. Notably, the second demographic transition is characterized by the rise in divorce, delayed marriage, and declining and delayed fertility. This piece is the foundation for the second demographic transition research and provides a cross-national overview of these changes.

  • McLanahan, S. 2004. Diverging destinies: How children are faring under the second demographic transition. Demography 41.4: 607–627.

    DOI: 10.1353/dem.2004.0033

    This piece links the second demographic transition to individual outcomes for one country: the United States. Whereas previous studies identify the second demographic transition as a demographic process reflecting changes in populations, this piece explicitly ties these population trends to children’s outcomes. Specifically, declining fertility rates among educated women result in the concentration of resources to their children, which produce diverging pattern by social class. These inequities contribute to a growing gap in outcomes by social class in the United States.

  • McLanahan, S., and G. Sandefur. 1994. Growing up with a single parent: What helps, what hurts. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    This piece investigates the impact of single parenthood on children’s outcomes. Drawing on four data sets, this piece investigates the impact of parents’ divorce on children’s outcomes across a range of measures including educational outcomes, health, and well-being. Further, the authors pay explicit attention to racial differences across these dimensions. The authors also demonstrate that divorce affects mothers and fathers differently, not to mention children. This piece provides a detailed understanding of the impact of divorce across families.

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