The Good Old Days

The Good Old Days Never Were

Many people distressed with the current status of the American family wish for a return of the good old days of the traditional family - when men earned an honest day's living to provide for their families, women lovingly upheld the hearth and home, and well-mannered children attended school and did as they were told.  In this idealized version of family life, older adults were venerated, while aging and ill family members were cared for in extended family households.  Like most nostalgic thinking, however, such wishful thoughts are only marginally based on historic fact (Coontz, 2000; Hareven, 1993).  In understanding family structure and dynamics today, as well as future family trends, it is imperative to understand the roads that have led us here.  Since so much of our past has been glorified in nostalgia, it's particularly important to separate out the fact from the fiction, so that we do not fall into the trap of holding ourselves up to a standard that never existed. 

Even in Plymouth Colony, Families Had Problems 

Research based on the examination of legal records, family letters and diaries, census data, and other historical documents reveal that the golden age of the American family as described above has never really existed.  Since the Mayflower arrived (and before), communities have fretted over the state of the American family (Demos, 1978; Hareven, 1993).  Historic records show that there have always been unhappy marriages, out-of-wedlock children (or hasty marriages with a pregnant bride), rebellious youth, substance abuse, gambling, truancy, and child and spousal abuse (Coontz, 2000; Mintz & Kellogg, 1989; Newman, 1999).  In fact, some of these problems were worse in earlier times than they have been more recently.  For example, rates of alcohol abuse, child abuse, truancy, and dropping out of school were higher in the 19th century than they are today, and murder rates were higher in 1933 than they were in the 1980s (Coontz).  Not only have social problems always existed, but in many cases they were not even considered morally or legally wrong, as in the case of corporal punishment of wives and children by their husbands and fathers throughout much of early American history (Newman).  So, while there have always been traditional nuclear families in the sense of mother, fathers, and children, there has not been a documented historical period when the majority of families were more stable, more harmonious, and happier (Zinn & Eitzen, 1987).

The Waltons Were the Exception

Another popular myth proven false by historical research is that in earlier times, families lived together in multigenerational or large extended family households (Coontz, 2000; Hareven, 1993).  Part of the explanation here lies in sheer demographics:  Until the 1940s, little overlap existed between first and third generations.  Life expectancy during the colonial period was only about 40 years.  Many mothers died from complications related to childbirth (about one in eight births ended in death), which in part explains the low life expectancy, but also limited the interaction in many families between generations.  By 1900 life expectancy still remained at only 48 years - only about 4 percent of the population was 65 or older.  Looked at another way, in 1900, only one-fifth of 30-year-olds had at least one grandparent still alive.  In 2000, approximately three-fourths of Americans the same age had one or more living grandparents (Quadagno, 2002).

Like today, the three-generation family has existed throughout American history, particularly among poor and immigrant families.  During hard times, such as the Great Depression and World War II, families moved in together out of necessity.  In but a few cases did multigenerational families create the life depicted on the popular 1970s television show The Waltons.  In fact, hard times like the Depression tended to create more family turmoil and strain intergenerational relationships (Coontz, 2000; Newman, 1993).  According to a 1948 film on family problems of the day, "No home is big enough to house two families, particularly two of different generations, with opposite theories on child training" (Coontz).

The preferred domicile arrangement has always been nuclear families, with parents or other relatives living close by - "intimacy from a distance" (Demos, 1970; Hareven, 1993).  This does not mean, however, that older adults lived alone.  Most elders did their best to preserve their autonomy by staying the head of the household, rather than moving in with family (Hareven).  Sometimes this arrangement was accomplished by the voluntary agreement of an adult child to remain in the home or return home to care for aging parents.  Other times it was mandated by a formal agreement.  For example, in colonial America, aging parents used legal contracts with inheriting sons to guarantee their support and care in old age (Demos, 1978).  Likewise, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, parents used the legal leverage of inheritance and the social obligation of reciprocity to guarantee their care in old age.  Less appealing options included moving into a child's household, taking in boarders, or boarding with other in the community (Hareven).

Whatever Happened to  "Respect Your Elders"?

Most social historians agree that aged persons were revered and venerated during the American colonial period (Aachenbaum, 1978; Demos, 1970; Fischer, 1978).  It is debatable, however, if this atypical tradition of respect applied t all elders or primarily to older, white, middle-class men (Atchley & Barusch, 2004; Quadagno, 2002).  Economics played a role in respecting one's male elders, as older men tended to be the ones who controlled the family property and were most experienced in trade and commerce (Aachenbaum; Demos, 1970).  Religious beliefs of the period also influenced behavior.  Puritans and pilgrims believed that old age was a sign of God's favor; therefore, male elders were at the top of the hierarchy as community and religious leaders (Demos, 1970; Fischer).

In his research, Fischer (1978) found that not just male church and political elders, but all older people in the colonies were given special consideration.  For example, in church the oldest members of the congregation were assigned seating near the pulpit, with the other members seated according to age behind them.  Younger people were in such awe of elders that the fashions of the day emulated them - powdered hair, white wigs, and clothes tailored to make young people look older than their age were popular until around the Revolutionary War (Fischer).

Other scholars believe that age did not assure one of prestige and power, particularly within the context of the larger community.  Older women, Native Americans, African Americans, and immigrants may have held some respect within their own families, but this rarely extended beyond familial ties (Quadagno, 2002).

In historical terms this period of respect for elders was brief.  By the mid-1800s, attitudes toward the aged turned progressively more negative, although historians disagree over the timing and causes of this transition (Quadagno, 2002; Atchley & Barusch, 2004).  Styles changed to emphasize a youthful appearance, and where once the young might have claimed to be older than their years, they began to allude to being younger (Fischer, 1978).  Terms of respect, such as gaffer and fogy, became derogatory jeers.  Henry David Thoreau captured the feeling of the day when, in 1847 at the age of 30, he wrote

I have lived some 30 years on this planet and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors.  They have told me nothing and probably cannot teach me anything. 

So much for the respect for one's elders.  The revolt against age grew into the cult of youth by the 20th century.

Those Fabulous '50s

Today, it is often the 1950s that are idealized as the era of the perfect nuclear family and the high point of traditional family values (Coontz, 2000).  Popular television sitcoms such as Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best idealized and exemplified the good life American families strove for during the Cold War period.  While it is true that during this decade a record number of American households consisted of a working father, stay-at-home mom, and several young children and that it was the boom years of the middle class, it was not an era without social problems.  The 1950s also produced the McCarthy inquisition, institutionalized racism, and the Cold War.  Nearly half of all marriages that began in the 1950s ended in divorce, and despite the prosperity for many during the decade, nearly a quarter of Americans were poor (Council on Contemporary Families, 2003).  Alcoholism, out-of-wedlock births, spousal abuse, homosexuality, and other family skeletons were abundant but safely guarded in the closet (Coontz).

The 1950s were a particularly hard time for many older Americans.  The affluence of the period largely bypassed minorities and older adults.  The postwar era saw the first great migration of Americans away from their parents and families in the cities and rural areas to the growing number of suburbs.  Further, the American population 65 years and older mushroomed from 3 million in 1900 to over 12 million in 1950, doubling from 4 to 8 percent of the population (Medicare Rights Center,  2004).  While Social Security and a growing number of pensions provided some income guarantee, nearly two-thirds of older Americans had annual incomes of less than $1,000, and only 1 in 8 had health insurance (Medicare Rights Center).  By 1965, 60 percent of older Americans lived at or near poverty level, and 80 percent relied solely on their Social Security for income (Atchley, 1972).  For America's older minorities, the picture was even bleaker.  Prior to the mid-1960s and the passage of bills such as the Medicare Act and the Older Americans Act, government-funded services and financial support to America's poor or elderly largely did not exist: There were no meals on wheels, adult day care centers, home and community-based services, or subsidized housing.  In short, outside of family assistance little help existed for seniors.

A Bridge to the Future 

In every generation, there are those who believe that their parents or grandparents grew up in the good old days - a time when families were more stable, the world was safer, and life was les complicated.  While these longings may be real and worthy of consideration, they shouldn't be taken literally (Coontz, 2000).  People who wish life were more like the 1950s usually do not mean that they want the whole package.  Family historian Stephanie Coontz sums it up succinctly:

What most people really feel nostalgic about has little to do with the internal structure of the 1950s families.  It is the belief that the 1950s provided a more family-friendly economic and social environment, an easier climate in which to keep kids on the straight and narrow, and above all, a greater feeling of hope for a family's long-term future, especially for its young.  The contrast between the perceived hopefulness of the '50s and our own misgivings about the future is key to contemporary nostalgia for the period...  People today understandably feel that their lives are out of  balance, but they yearn for something totally new - a more equal distribution of work, family, and community time for both men and women, children and adults. 

Those who understand that nostalgia has its pitfalls but is more than cheap sentiment have an advantage - they understand that seniors and family members who talk of the way things used to be are giving important clues of what they hope for, what they fear, and what is currently missing in their lives.  Talking about the past can be a way to relate in a deeper, more meaningful way with clients - it helps us to understand what they value about family and relatioships, what their familial expectations are, as well as how they view their obligations.  If, in remembering their childhoods, seniors confide that is was far less than perfect, you can reassure them that many Americans feel the same way and that few families have ever lived like the Andersons in Father Knows Best.

A historical perspective reveals and emphasizes that today's aging population is not a homogeneous group.  Each cohort has been shaped by its own unique historic events, as well as economic, demographic, and social characteristics.  Factors such as race, gender, socioeconomic background, and education further differentiate the aging experience both between and within each of these groups.

Taken together, these aspects have a profound effect on people's attitudes, behaviors, and life decisions (Hareven, 1993).  For example, people who came of age during the Great Depression often have a different view of finances than those who came of age during the prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s.  Knowing the conditions that people faced early in life informs us as to how they are likely to adapt in later life, including their "views of family relations, their expectations of support from kin, and their ability to interact with welfare agencies and institutions" (Hareven, p. 9).

Facts Correcting Popular Misconceptions about America's Families

  • In 1960, one child in three lived in poverty.
  • Fewer than half the students who entered high school in the late 1940s ever finished.
  • From 1950 to 1959 there were 257, 455 cases of polio, mostly in children; 11, 957 died.
  • In 1940, 1 child in 10 did not live with either birth parent.  Today, the figure is 1 in 25.
  • A higher proportion of people report their marriage is happy today than did in 1957.
  • A woman over 35 has a better chance of  marrying today than she did in the 1950s.
  • In the mid-1950s, 25 percent of the total population---and 50 percent of black families---lived below the poverty line.
  • In 1952, there were 2 million more wives working outside the home than at the peak of World War II.
  • Women in the 1950s who failed to conform to the June Cleaver stereotype of housewife and mother were severely criticized, and men who failed to marry were considered immature and selfish.
  • Half of the marriages that began in the 1950s ended in divorce.
  • During the 1950s, more than 2 million couples lived separately.
  • In 1957 there were more than twice as many births to girls and young women ages 15 to 19 than in  1983.
  • The number of illegitimate babies put up for adoption rose 80 percent from 1944 to 1955.
  • In 1959, one-third of American children---and one-fourth of all Americans---were poor.

While this section does not offer a comprehensive history on the American family, it can provide you with a big-picture view of how families have changed over the years and how history and other factors shape an individual and a cohort.   You can employ personal reminiscence, as well as historical perspective, to build a bridge from the past into the future, by dispelling the myths of the way we never were and building on what we know to be true, for ourselves and for our families.

The information above is reprinted from Working with Seniors: Health, Financial and Social Issues with permission from Society of Certified Senior Advisors® . Copyright © 2009. All rights reserved.