Campus: CSU San Marcos -- January 24, 2003

Cal State San Marcos & USC Sociologists Find Families Still Matter

Holidays are a time to think about families. But, are the things we think about American families accurate? Decades of rising divorce rates and increasing numbers of mothers working outside the home have raised questions about the health of American families.

Is the nuclear family a social institution in decline? Are today's youth a generation at risk: disillusioned, unmotivated misfits deeply damaged by their parents' divorces and mothers' careers?

The answer is no, according to sociologists from Cal State San Marcos and the University of Southern California (USC).

"Overall, family functioning seems quite resilient in response to divorce and maternal employment," said Cal State San Marcos sociologist and study participant Robert Roberts. "Rather than being a 'generation at risk,' today's youth appear to enter adulthood with more self-confidence, higher career goals, and more collectivistic values than their Baby Boomer parents did 30 years ago."

In the newly released book How Families Still Matter: A Longitudinal Study of Youth in Two Generations, published by Cambridge University Press, USC's Vern Bengtson and Timothy Biblarz and San Marcos' Roberts compared parental influences on the self-esteem, aspirations, and values of Baby Boomer youth, born in the 1940s and 1950s, with parental influences on Generation X youth, born in the 1970s and 1980s.

Their study is based on the world's longest running longitudinal study of families, which began at USC in 1971 and has followed hundreds of multi-generational families, surveying them periodically on a range of issues. Because of the study's longevity, the researchers were able to interview the Baby Boomers in the role of children 30 years ago and again, more recently, as parents.

For How Families Still Matter, the researchers focused on three developmental outcomes, measured as the youths made the transition to adulthood: career and educational goals, self-esteem, and social values.

What did the researchers find after all of this?

"The kids are alright," said Roberts, a professor of sociology with expertise in family and intergenerational relationships. "And, they're not much like the slacker stereotype."
Overall, the researchers found that the children of the Boomers have higher aspirations than their parents did as youth, despite being about twice as likely to have experienced their parents' divorce and/or their mothers working outside the home. They also found that Gen-Xers have healthier self-images-being more self-confident and less self-deprecating, on average-than their parents were 30 years ago. Finally, they found that Gen-Xers endorse more collectivistic (as opposed to individualistic) social values.

According to Roberts, the Gen X youths' values were also slightly more materialistic, as opposed to humanistic, than their parents were at the same age. However, on the continuum of materialistic to humanistic, youths' values in both generations were, on average, more on the humanistic side. But, the Gen-Xers appear to be sliding a little further toward materialistic desires than did their parents.

Two areas of specific interest in this study were the impact of divorce and mothers working outside the home on children's well-being.

"On the surface, the children look fine. Kids in two-parent families are going off the charts in the areas we measured," said Roberts in a discussion of the impacts of divorce. "They are becoming more confident, collective, and more materialistic."

Divorce, he continued, did have a slowing effect on those positive trends, but a drastic difference was not noted between children in two-parent and one-parent homes. "Children of divorce are bringing down the positive trend a bit, but they are still doing better than the generation before. Divorce is not ruining them, at least with respect to the outcomes we've examined."

Roberts and his colleagues also found that the increasing numbers of mothers working outside the home has not had a negative effect on their children's development. "Working moms in this sample are not damaging the self-esteem, confidence or values of their kids," said Roberts. "In some cases, we're seeing increases. For example, sons of working women have more self-esteem and report higher rates of collectivism."

The researchers also found that women in Generation X, who were born after the beginning of the modern feminist movement, are much different than their mothers were 30 years ago.
Perhaps the most striking finding has been the upward spike in the educational and occupational aspirations of young women over the past three decades. Today's young women have aspirations on par with their male counterparts and that far exceed the aspirations of their Baby Boomer mothers at the same life stage."

Paige Jennings, External Affairs

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