Jewish Public Forum Archive

Established in 1999, the Jewish Public Forum at CLAL is a think tank that generates fresh thinking about the social, political and cultural trends affecting ethnic and religious identity and community building at a time of great change.  It is an unprecedented effort to broaden the conversation about the Jewish and American future by creating a network of leading figures in the worlds of academia, business, the arts and public policy, most of whom have not been involved in organized Jewish life. Here you will find articles published under the auspices of the Jewish Public Forum. 

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"The Future of Family and Tribe," a seminar of CLAL’s Jewish Public Forum held January 28-29, 2002 in New York City, brought together a dozen leading thinkers on gender, gay rights, adoption, reproductive law, bioethics, and aging. eCLAL is publishing a series of articles based on participants’ contributions to the seminar. To view other essays from "The Future of Family and Tribe" seminar, click here.

This seminar was part of Exploring the Jewish Futures: A Multidimensional Project On the Future of Religion,Ethnicity and Civic Engagement.   For more information about the project, click here.

Arlene Skolnick participated in "The Future of Family and Tribe" seminar. She is on the faculty of the Institute of Human Development, University of California in Berkeley where she studies the impact of socio-economic change on family life and individual development. She has published a number of books and articles on marriage and the family, including Family in Transition (with Jerome Skolnick) and Embattled Paradise: The American Family in an Age of Uncertainty. Her contribution to the JPF Seminar follows below.


Towards a New Cultural Common Sense

By Arlene Skolnick


Every few hundred years in Western history…we cross a “divide.” Within a few short years, society rearranges itself its worldview, its basic values, its social and political structures, its arts, its key institutions.

Peter Drucker, Post-Capitalist Society, 1993, p.1


In the first decade of the twenty-first century, it seems clear that we are passing through one of those “divides.” Whether we call it globalization, the post- industrial society, or the information age, we are speeding into a new world that is altering virtually every aspect of life.  Such unsettled periods can be interesting times, but they also can take a severe toll on those who live through them.

Some time ago, the sociologist William Ogburn coined the term “cultural lag” to describe the period between the onset of technological or economic change and the social and cultural rearrangements that societies make to adapt to the new realities. As an example, he pointed to the fact that large numbers of women had entered the paid workforce, but there had not been a change in the dominant ideology that “women’s place is in the home.”       

Ogburn’s essay appeared in 1950.  And this was before the 1950s had blossomed into the  “Ozzie and Harriet era” that still engages American hearts and minds, and shapes the public debate over the family.  Half a century later, our ideas about women’s place lag even further behind reality. For example, about 70 per cent of mothers are in the paid work force; and, for most families, two incomes are essential. But public debate remains focused on whether or not mothers should work at all.  

This is not the first time American families have found themselves struggling with a radically transformed environment. We are living through a post- industrial reenactment of two earlier such watershed periods.   The first occurred as the United States moved from an agrarian to an industrial, market society in the early decades of the nineteenth century. The second was at the turn of the twentieth century, the era that has been called the “second industrial revolution.”  

Our own era most resembles the turbulent period when work first moved out of the home during the industrial revolution.  In pre-industrial times, work was a family business.  The baker and the shoemaker, as well as the farmer, depended on the labor of wives and children, and often of apprentices and hired hands as well.  The pattern most contemporary Americans assume to be traditional, the breadwinner homemaker family, was in fact a creation of industrial society in its early stages.

 Eventually, the separation of home and work became the basis for a powerful new cultural system based on the doctrine of separate spheres for men and women.  In the pre-industrial family, men’s and women’s roles were not seen as polar opposites.  The man may have been the household patriarch, but the members of the couple were economic partners and they both supervised the children.  Now men and women were seen as thoroughly different, biologically and psychologically, and with contrasting missions in life.   The world was divided into a private, female sphere of home and family, and a male public sphere of the marketplace and politics.

Each sphere was assumed to operate on different moral principles. The male sphere, based on competition and self-interest, was cold, rational, impersonal. Women’s mission was to preserve the values that had no place in the market economy to selflessly make the home a “haven in a heartless world.”

This vision of the family, which detached women from the workplace, was a middle class creation, but the historical evidence suggests that it was widely accepted, as an aspiration if not a reality, across class, racial and ethnic lines. The social institutions and cultural norms of industrial society, from the law to the physical design of the home, to individual identity, were organized around this sexual division of labor.

The transition into the “separate spheres” family was as traumatic as today’s transition away from it.  The shift from one cultural model of family life to another is a contentious process that moves through several stages.  The first stage is a period of individual and family stress.  As the economy changes, everyday family life departs from the existing cultural blueprints. Without new guidelines for family roles, there is no right way to behave. Increasing numbers of individuals show signs of psychological stress-personality disturbances, drinking and drug problems. Young people in particular become a troubled and troublesome part of the population.

The second stage is a period of cultural and political struggle. Private troubles become public issues.  Political and religious leaders, journalists, social reformers and others offer competing interpretations of the problem.  Some denounce change as moral breakdown and call for a return to traditional ways; other voices call for adaptation to the new realities.  Still others want to push change into radical new directions.

Finally, restabilization occurs. Controversy gives way to a new cultural blueprint for family life, one that reconciles older values with new realities. New institutions and social arrangements are developed to deal with the problems created by change.  For example, the first public schools were created early in the l9th century to prepare children to make their own way in the world.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, we seem to be stalled in Stage Two, the uncomfortable in-between time when the old cultural blueprints no longer work, but there is no consensus on what the new arrangements should be. The cultural warriors of the right and left continue to do battle over  the  “the sixties.”  The right blames feminism and “counterculture” of that era for the decline of the family, while the left celebrates diversity in family arrangements and the death of patriarchy.

But as Ogburn pointed out, the old assumptions of women’s place were coming undone even before the sixties. In fact, demographic change and the beginnings of a service economy had begun to erode the foundations of separate spheres even before the twentieth century had begun.

Unfortunately, both sides in the culture war devote too much attention to the past while ignoring the future.  Engagement in a cultural battle distracts attention from the task of coming to terms with a post-industrial, post-separate spheres future. That is why I believe the notion of “historical transition” is useful. It enables us to acknowledge the current stresses and disruptions of family life without calling for the clock to be turned back to family arrangements that prevailed in a radically different world.

Although technology and economics are the driving forces of change, they do not determine precisely how societies will rearrange themselves. During the unsettled, in-between stages of transition, the future is up for grabs.  Historically, political and cultural conflicts over family change have been resolved in ways that disappoint activists and intellectuals on both sides.   Conservatives must accept much more change than they would like, radical reformers, much less. 

In fact, the outlines of a new family model are already emerging.  Most Americans have made peace between the liberal, egalitarian values of the ‘60s and the old values of work and family. The information age has irrevocably blurred the distinctions the industrial age drew sharply between male and female roles, between home and work, and between public and private. The two-earner family is now modal.  In numerous surveys, the generation that succeeded the baby boom “Gen X” in pop culture terms is even more family centered than are the boomers.  Members of Generation X seek “balance” between home and work, and are even more disapproving of divorce.  While the traditionalists rail on about the “collapse” or “abolition” of marriage, Americans go on marrying at rates only slightly below the peak of 95% in the l950s. 

The debate over the supposed decline of marriage and the nuclear family also overlooks one of the major demographic trends of our time the emergence of the multigenerational family. The longevity revolution is usually discussed as a crisis who is going to take care of all those old people?  But, in fact, the very nature of what it means to be 60 or 70 or even 80 has changed.  A new life stage has emerged, “the third age,” in which large numbers of people lead healthy active lives well past the ages at which, in l900, they would already have died.

Thus, intergenerational bonds are likely to be more rather than less important in the twenty-first century for several reasons. First, there are more years available for different generations to share their lives.  Second, there is evidence that  today’s  younger generations have an even greater sense of obligation to close kin than their predecessors had.   Third, with marriage less stable than it was in the past, grandparents and other kin are increasingly providing care and other kinds of support to their children and grandchildren.

Beyond the bonds of blood kinship, families are becoming extended in diverse other ways.  Traditional family occasions such as weddings, bar mitzvahs and Thanksgiving are likely to include, for example, a single cousin and her child, a couple with an adopted child of a different race, a lesbian or gay relative with a partner and their child, members of the groom’s mother’s first husband’s family, etc., etc.

So if Americans haven’t abandoned marriage and family values in droves, why is there so much stress and disruption?  I would argue that the disruption and anxiety come from the fact that we are living in a period when the “cultural scripts” that would link our behavior to a system of values appropriate for our time have not yet been written.

In addition, we haven’t been able to devise a new morality of care and family responsibility to replace the old “separate spheres” version.   Conservatives speak to the uneasiness people feel about the fate of “separate sphere” values in an increasingly gender-equal and market driven world.  Yet the idea of restoring women to their  “traditional” roles offers no solutions to the predicaments created by technological and economic change.  It would take a Taliban-like regime to repeal one of the major trends of the twentieth century and return women to the home. 

Beyond the dilemmas raised by the shift in the roles of men and women, there is also a profound and unsustainable mismatch between the demands of  the economy and the needs of families. With its emphasis on maximum flexibility and efficiency, the new global economy undermines the conditions that enable families to thrive.  Yet the functions of the family, functions that used to be women’s special task, are more important in the 21st century than ever before.  To produce a workforce for a new economy that values brains and interpersonal skills over brawn, parents must invest high levels of emotion, attention, time and money into their children.  And in a fast-paced and uncertain post-industrial world, the intimacy and connectedness of home and family become even more precious to adults.

What we need is a new family politics that is part of a still wider agenda for “sustainability.”  The term “sustainablity” suggests that our self-interest in our personal security, well-being and prosperity gives us all a stake in a reasonably cohesive society, with a stable and educated workforce.  Families whatever their structure should be seen not only as a humanitarian concern, but as an essential part of the economic system. After all, they create, nurture and sustain society’s social and  “human capital.”    

There is an interesting parallel here to the environment.  Before explicit concern with environmental impact was written into the law, the market could take the environment for granted, without having to work such things as pollution or endangered species into the costs of doing business.  As some economists are beginning to argue, we need to include the social costs of business decisions as well as their impact on the natural environment when we think about “sustainability.”

An increasing number of corporate leaders have begun to make the connection between the family and personal lives of their employees and their business’s bottom line.  By offering family friendly policies, they enhance morale and retention as well as productivity and creativity. But creating supportive infrastructure for families is a task for the nation as a whole, not just for individual corporations.

Because it rests on pragmatic and economic grounds, the case for sustainable families and communities bolsters moral and humanitarian arguments for a more caring society. We do not yet have a blueprint for public and private policies that are both friendly to children and families (whatever their form) and, at the same time, equitable for both men and women.  We will be grappling with these issues well into the new century.  It’s all too easy to fall into apocalyptic pessimism or its utopian opposite.  What we must grapple with is imagining a world that is “good enough,” and a plan for getting there.  


To view other essays from "The Future of Family and Tribe" seminar, click here.


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