WE ARE in the midst of an astonishing social revolution, the greatest ever known, more far-reaching than any political revolution ever could be. In a remarkably short time, all the old certainties about how to live, with whom to live, and how and with whom to bring up children have been turned inside out. The things that matter most to us, the way we deal with the personal, the passionate, the sexual, the intimate, the familial are all now in a state of flux.
As we are still in the revolutionary phase, it is exceedingly difficult to tell where and when it will settle. If the divorce trajectory continued on its present upward curve no one in Britain would still be married by some time in the next century; but then no one would have got married in the first place. So a simple projection of present trends is unlikely to be a good predictor of the future. The scale of the revolution can be guessed from the following facts: 32 per cent of babies are now born outside wedlock, one in 12 households are cohabiting couples, and there is now one divorce for every two weddings. Looking to the future, politicians and social thinkers furrow their brows over the breakdown of the family and hence, they say, of society. If only we could get back to the way things were, they fret. Yes, with single mothers hounded into giving up their babies, or forced into shotgun marriages of dreadful misery, people wasting their lives in desperately unhappy relationships, unmarried women on the shelf, gay and virtually all other sexuality repressed, assault and battery behind the net curtains, the emotional life stifled out of people for lack of freedom...
Why are we still so uneasy with the revolution we have ourselves created, from the grass roots? There were no leaders, but voting with their feet people abandoned relationships that made them unhappy, just as people broke though the Berlin wall. Changes in the law tagged along behind. The pace of change has been so fast, our ideas have yet to catch up with our behaviour. Most people still treasure the ideal of a happy monogamous relationship for life. But achieving it is something else. If it comes to choosing between life-long monogamy and happiness, they choose happiness. Are these the rotten values of the Me Generation, or cause for celebration as a liberty worth at least as much as democracy or freedom of speech? In my view, we should rejoice more and castigate ourselves less. We have nothing to fear but moral panic itself. By the next century we must settle down and come to terms with the way we are living or we will continue to make life unnecessarily difficult for everyone, most of all for children. Large numbers of them are being brought up in a schizophrenic society that teaches them Janet and John values with Mummy at the sink and Daddy at work, and then fails to deliver this ideal.
For as long as our leaders castigate divorce and its inevitable concomitant, single motherhood, they will delay re-shaping our institutions to take account of the way we now live. Until they throw out the moral baggage, they will never tackle the serious problems of teenage mothers and women's poverty. While they mourn a fictitious golden age of family life, they will fail to celebrate the remarkable new freedom we enjoy. In the last 30 years we threw off the chains. In the next century, I hope we will throw off the guilt.
But there are plenty of other models of the future: the "pendulum" theorists, of whom the Christian moralist Dr Patrick Dixon is just one, hold a determinist view of history that decrees that the pendulum swings between permissiveness and puritanism at regular intervals. Today, they believe, the pendulum is swinging back towards them. In the early 18th century, sexual freedom was tolerated, marriage was a grey area in law and many children were born out of wedlock. Then came John Wesley, followed by the rise of Victorian values - sexual purity and virginity were, at least overtly, rigid social codes. Then, the pendulum theorists say, after the disruption of the First World War, things began to fall apart again. Divorce doubled as soldiers came home from war. Women cut their hair and their hemlines, went to work and smoked cigarettes. By the end of the Second World War, sexual behaviour slipped still further. Then came the pill, divorce law reform, the abortion act, and sex on every hoarding, in every film and television drama. And all this sex led to crime, vandalism and neglected children.
But this version of history is not quite as symmetrical as the pendulum theorists would like. As we now know, the Victorians were a hypocritically libidinous lot; between a third and half of women were pregnant when they married, prostitution was rife, "unbridled sexual intercourse" was reported in working class dance halls, and a study of a Dorset village found eight out of ten births were illegitimate between 1870 and 1890. And if the Victorians were secretly indulging in considerably more sex than one might suppose from reading the Brontes or Dickens, we appear secretly to be indulging in a lot less sex than anyone examining our culture might imagine. The best study so far, the British National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyle, talked to 19,000 people and found that some 70 per cent of men between 25 and 44 had been monogamous during the last five years, and closer to 80 per cent of women. True, some 28 per cent of men in the same age group claim to have had 10 or more partners in a life time. But overall, the evidence suggests that changes in sexual habits may be a bit less radical beneath the surface than the prevailing cultural mores proclaim.
The revolution has been in how we organise our sexuality and hence our family life. Divorce is relatively new territory, and so is the large number of women bringing up children alone. Serial monogamy and step-parenthood due to death have always been common enough, as has adultery. Thousands of children always were born out of wedlock, but they were bundled into orphanages where many conveniently died. The end of the very concept of "illegitimacy" is a radical landmark.
Unfortunately, in the turmoil of this revolutionary era, the economic underpinning for the up-bringing of children has gone, and nothing else has replaced it. We still have a model that demands that men go out to work (only men are paid bread-winning wages) and women stay home and care (the state provides no child-care) Most families can only support children with a father. Without one, most women and children fall upon the mercy of the state as widows once used to fall upon the parish. Few doubt that we are adrift and in trouble, though the solutions people reach for are very different.
The moralists argue what they sense in the air: that people are turning to religion, social conscience and fidelity. They argue that the economic cost of divorce is bringing people to their senses. And, indeed, in the last couple of years the divorce figures have shown signs of bottoming out. But this may be because a second generation now brought up to take sexual liberty for granted is beginning to find a natural level free of restraint, yet recovering from the intoxicating effects of sudden liberation. The new puritans are preaching virginity before marriage, life-long faithfulness and the supression of sexuality. They preach against romantic love, in favour of the "good enough" partner. They say that the dreadful effect on society of uncurbed sex is making people realise that sex is not as important as we have been led to believe.
So in the 21st century will we see this return to the Fifties that the moralists yearn for? I think not. Too many genies are out of the bottle; indeed the bottle itself is smashed. People are divorcing despite the colossal cost to themselves. Men may lose houses, women lose income and pensions, both know guiltily that their children may lose out too. And yet they still do it. Most divorces are initiated by women, even though they stand to lose most, falling into poverty on social security. To hell with money - freedom matters more.
There is nothing materialistic about the rush for separation. It is all romance and the search for it. It is an anti-materialistic impulse in a material world. The recent suggestion by the Archbishop of York, and others, that people could be given minor tax and benefit incentives to stay together, is plainly batty in the face of what they are willing to lose when they part.
A return to Fifties morality would mean women giving up their new found freedom. It would mean them deciding to tolerate behaviour in husbands they are finding increasingly intolerable. One of the root causes of divorce is the mis-match between what women expect from men and what they get. Since the Seventies women have been absorbing ideas of freedom and equality in a movement that swept through every class with remarkable speed. The word was spread through newspapers' women's pages and magazines to readers of Harpers & Queen and Woman's Own alike; questions were asked, new demands made. But men were not reading the same things and didn't get the message. Although there are signs that men do more than they used to in the home, a very little still goes a long way to persuade them that they have become New Men. Looking at families where both husbands and wives work, the Henley Centre for Forecasting compares what each partner did in 1985 with what they did in 1993. Men did about an hour and a half more "Essential Household" tasks and women about the same amount less. None the less, in 1993, men were doing only 12.69 hours of such tasks a week, while women were doing 25.33.
This is not a trivial question of housework. Underlying this state of affairs is a whole set of attitudes between women and men that is growing increasingly cancerous. Girls are no longer brought up to put up with men. Boys seem only a littte better than they were. So are women in the next century going to decide that they can live with unreformed men after all? I doubt it. Are men going to change? There are signs that they are, but too slowly. I would guess that we will continue to have a high divorce rate and a high number of women struggling to bring up children on their own
That means that the state will continue to pick up an ever mounting social security bill, unless there is a radical rethink. As the recent Rowntree Trust report on inequality shows, there is already a higher proportion of children in poverty than at any time since the last war: one third of all children, mainly though not entirely because of family dislocation. Will taxpayers tolerate this burden for ever?
What governments can do is try to construct an economy that fits the way people actually live. It isn't easy, it might be expensive, but in the long run a society that ensured woman could be independent breadwinners would be cheaper for the state. If large numbers of women are destined to bring up their children alone they have to be able to earn the same family income as a man. Currently, women earn 25 per cent less, and from this springs the great burden on the benefits budget. Women need training, childcare, a minimum wage and a punitive regime to impose equal pay on employers. The fact that most jobs are still effectively sex-segregated lets employers get away with paying women wages they can't live on. The Equal Pay for Work of Equal Value directive from Brussels, imposed upon a reluctant Britain, needs to be forced upon employers. In short, the future is in our hands. There are practical things that can be done, if there is the political will.
Among the poor, the benefits system has made fathers not only redundant, but a drain on mothers and children. With couples, it is the man that collects the family social security, and he usually hands over far too little of it for his family to survive. Women and men should have their own separate entitlements to benefits, and all the money due to the household and children should be added to the mother's benefit, not the father's. At least that way there is no disincentive for couples to live together.
Then we need to feel at ease with ourselves. Two parents good, one parent bad remains deeply imprinted although we do not even know if that is true. We may guess from the research that children do best with two happy and loving parents, but it is by no means clear that children do any better with two unhappy and warring parents than in a contented one-parent family. If we intend to go on living the way we do now, we had better start understanding and liking it a bit better, and bringing up children to expect it. The real difference between children who do well and those who do badly is determined by how parents behave when they part. I predict that we will get better at divorce, and learn to separate with less venom, more consideration for the children.
As for other aspects of family life, some futurologists talk glowingly of a world in the next century of home-working, flexitime, job-sharing, multiple employers and so on. They offer images of happy families as compact little business units working trom home, combining work, children and leisure in a holistic heaven. So far, I see little sign of that. Everyone who has work is working harder and harder, to the detriment of their personal and family lives; everyone is more afraid of losing their jobs. Efficiency drives spurred on by management consultants have forced people to work to maximum capacity until they drop. Short term contracts keep people in fear of their livelihoods. The world is divided between families overburdened with work and families oppressed by having none. To be honest, I see no end in sight to this great divide unless we can manage another kind of revolution. Perhaps we will all suddenly see the light, abandon mammon and accept less of everything in exchange for more time to stand and stare. Time to nurture children, time for friendships, time for partners or lovers and family life in the broadest sense.
But as I write, I am already past my deadline, and late for my son's open day at school. Other deadlines beckon tomorrow: quality time is always tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow.Reuse content