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90'S FAMILY

Rumors of Its Death Were Greatly Exaggerated

Traditions: The American family is still alive and well--it's just different. While the nuclear family flags, the extended family flourishes, an expert says.

November 10, 1996|JOSEPH HANANIA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The American family is not dead or even in trouble. Rather it has metamorphosed and is better than ever.

These conclusions come from a 26-year study of 300 Los Angeles families. Vern L. Bengston, distinguished scholar with the American Sociological Assn. and USC sociologist, has released his findings in the "Longitudinal Study of Generations," garnering an award for outstanding research to be presented Nov. 17 by the Washington-based Gerontological Society of America. Society Deputy Director Linda Harootyan called the study "pioneering work."

"This country has a lot of programs whose effectiveness depends on understanding family dynamics. This study's significance is critical to that effort," she said.

Bengston said that while it's true the divorce rate has skyrocketed to around 50%, decimating the nuclear family, powerful intergenerational ties have made today's extended families stronger, more interconnected and more upwardly mobile than ever.

Kind of like "The Waltons," with a modern twist. The intergenerational family existed primarily in myth during the TV Waltons' purported World War II era. However, because the average American now lives approximately 30 years longer than in the '40s, such families are common today, although in urbanized settings, Bengston found. Not only do substantially more intergenerational families exist, they are also more extended. Today's families can span four to five generations.

Also unlike the Waltons, whose parents ran the homestead and provided for the grandparents, today it is the older generations who most often own the home, allowing the younger generations to move back in during times of crisis. "It is the older generations who often provide the stability, the sense of home and security for the younger generations, not vice versa," Bengston said.

The result: Today's Generation Xers have the biggest intergenerational safety net ever, he said. In addition, a record 4 million American children are being brought up by their grandparents--double the number as recently as 1990.

Conversely, elderly parents with debilitating diseases can continue to count on their children to be there for them, with daughters more likely to be supportive than their sons. Gender differences here are rapidly diminishing, however, Bengston found.

The traditional family structure used to be pyramid-shaped, with numerous grandchildren at the base and a few elders at the top. Today's structure more closely resembles a ladder, with relatively equal numbers on each rung. Thus, Bengston said, today's family ties are more likely to span generational lines, rather than consisting of ties within the nuclear family.

Among Bengston's other findings was that although much has changed in the American family, much also remains the same. Now as before, "family values" get stronger with age, with parents reporting a measurably higher degree of love for their children, the children more frequently stressing the value of independence. Now as before, parental happiness has consistently peaked shortly after marriage and again after the kids have left home. It is lowest during their children's adolescence.

Bengston's study, the longest-running and largest of its kind, began in 1970 when he randomly picked out from the membership of a major Los Angeles-based HMO 2,000 volunteers in 300 three-generation families. The bulk of the volunteers were working class, including a heavy mix of steel workers and those in related industries. Study volunteers were guaranteed anonymity.

Every six months, Bengston sends volunteers study updates. He has mailed out questionnaires measuring changes in attitudes and life circumstances every three years. The results of these questionnaires, supplemented by occasional on-site interviews, have been correlated with national statistics.

Since the National Institutes of Health-sponsored study began, the oldest generation have become great-grandparents, averaging 84 years old. The youngest generation averages 19 years old. The study is scheduled to run through 2,003.

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