Rethinking Family-Formation in the Information Age

Red Families v. Blue Families
Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture
Naomi Cahn & June Carbone
May 13, 2010

By Naomi Cahn, John Theodore Fey Research Professor of Law, George Washington University Law School & June Carbone, Edward A. Smith/Missouri Chair of Law, University of Missouri-Kansas City School  of Law 

Released last week, a new study found that women over the age of 35 in the U.S. gave birth to more babies than did American teens -- a reversal of the situation 20 years ago.

Given our research into family formation, this doesn't surprise us. In Red Families v. Blue Families, we discuss which families are succeeding in the 21st Century. It is "blue" families, which invest in women as well as men, delay family formation until after young adults reach emotional maturity and financial independence, and view sexuality as a private matter, that have adapted to the new information economy. By contrast, the "red" family system is a traditional one that continues to preach abstinence, early marriage and more traditional gender roles. The religious backlash against the new values has locked red families into a war against modernity. The book also shows how cultural controversies over abortion, gay marriage and single motherhood are masking the country's real divisions, and then suggest practical steps to reshape the debate surrounding red and blue America.

Although we didn't start writing the book until after the 2004 election, our interest in family systems started almost a decade ago, when we became curious about evolutionary psychology. We quickly found that even a cursory look at the anthropological literature belied conservative claims that the family was somehow fixed and unchanging; indeed, serial monogamy seemed to be more common than long term fidelity. At the same time, some patterns seemed persistent enough to make us skeptical of the claims that family life was infinitely flexible. Children, for example, benefit from the commitment of more than one adult in almost every society.

Just as we were mulling over the potential implications for modern family law, the 2004 election occurred, with polls highlighting the role of moral values in President George W. Bush's reelection. We read with recognition the op-eds highlighting the higher teen pregnancy and divorce rates in the areas of the country ranking moral values at the top of voters' list of concerns. We thought we knew the answer. In "red" areas of the country, family life began at earlier ages -- and early marriage was a risk factor for divorce. The average ages of marriage and first birth are among the more significant factors that predict whether a state will vote red or blue.

Today, the average age of marriage has risen to over 25 for women, almost 28 for men. College-educated women, particularly those in urban areas and the coasts, have led the way. In this new world, families invest in both men and women's workforce opportunities, and emotional maturity and financial independence are the markers of responsible family formation. Social norms no longer punish non-marital sexuality, but contraception is essential, with abortion as the reluctant fallback. For those who adhere to the new rules, good things happen. College-educated women are the only group in society whose marriage rates have increased, and family income has increased. Their divorce rates have fallen partly because greater maturity is a protective factor, but even more because the successful have become even more likely to marry each other and to do so later in life.

Yet, the new family terms poses a crisis for everyone else. Divorce rates seemed to plateau in the nineties, but more sophisticated research shows that, for the college-educated, they fell in the nineties back to the levels of thirty years earlier while continuing to rise for everyone else. The well-paying blue collar jobs that supported early marriages in the fifties are gone, and self-supporting women have been become less willing to put up with violent, drunken or simply inconsiderate mates.

Today, family stability is a marker of region and class, and the more conservative and religious areas of the country are ready to fight back. They see the futures of their children and grandchildren at stake.

Even so, the emergence of family values as a divisive political issue was hardly a given. In the seventies, support for contraception was close to unanimous -- Congress passed the first federal family planning initiative in 1970 with a unanimous vote in the Senate, token opposition in the House, and the support of Republican President Richard Nixon. And both parties were divided on abortion. We argue that while the culture gap is real -- different families live different lives in different areas of the country -- culture clash is a political construct. The emergence of family values as political involves the coming together of several different trends. Those who feel threatened attribute greater importance to traditional values that they see under assault, and those who believe that moral values are a given -- fixed, eternal and divinely ordained -- are also drawn to more conservative and hierarchical leadership.

We hope the book will help move us beyond contemporary battles over moral values towards supporting families. Towards that end, we suggest three strategies:

Change the subject from abortion to contraception. The fact that teen births and abortion rise and fall in tandem provides compelling evidence that unintended pregnancy rates respond to the effectiveness of contraception, while a host of studies demonstrate that the U.S. in first in the developed world in unintended childbearing and the issue is a growing and increasingly class-based concern.

Change the subject from family to work. The essential next step for red and blue families alike is reconsideration of the relationship between work and family. For blue families, where human capital acquisition precedes family formation, the challenge is to structure the work place to fit in family. For red families, where family formation may come first, the challenge is to restructure the relationship to the workplace to make it easier to return to school, cycle in and out of the workplace, and care for sick children.

Move to the middle on family formation. One critical area where genuine convergence between the two models might ultimately transform the debate: can we persuade our prototypical red family to delay family formation to the mid-twenties and our prototypical blue family to start a bit earlier?