Independent Decade : From nuclear family to microwave society

Home and hearth
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The Independent Online
In the past it was simple. Dad went out to work, mum stayed at home to mind the 1.8 children and the family was the cornerstone of society. Not anymore. Now women rush through the door at 6pm shouting "Honey, I'm home". Instead of a family meal, the children have a microwaved snack before retiring to their rooms, to computer screens or MTV. Dad fills in yet another form for the Child Support Agency ,as his 22-year- old stepson broods on the days until he turns 25 and, eligible for full benefit, can finally afford to leave home.

The family has changed enormously in a decade. In 1986 there was no CSA, no Children Act, no no-fault divorce. Fertility treatments were still being developed and campaigns for fathers' rights were barely a glint in Bob Geldof's eye.

More sombrely, as The Independent launched, the reality of large-scale child abuse was yet to emerge, the reform of benefits for young people were just about to begin, as was the decision by more twentysomethings to put off or opt out of having their own families altogether. As the wild popularity of Sainsbury's Chicken Tikka Masala (for one) attests, one of the significant changes of the last decade has been that more and more people are remaining single. One in four households is now someone living alone, and one in five women will never have children.

But it is the growing band of single mothers that has drawn the wrath of the moral right - or, more accurately, single mothers with "babies on benefit". For the affluent, single parenthood achieved a certain cachet. For those living on council estates it became synonymous with fecklessness and scrounging. Surveys show a growing polarisation in wealth between "work-rich" (dual earner) and "work-poor" (no earner) families. By the end of the decade, one in four households - the majority including children - had incomes of less than half the national average.

Meanwhile, if the Seventies witnessed the birth of women's rights, the Nineties put fathers' rights on the agenda - a mood caught by Bob Geldof, who, as he sought custody of his three children, announced his determination to bring "the rights of wronged fathers to public attention". Nothing united militant fathers so much as the creation of the CSA in 1993. While people supported the agency in principle, its catalogue of errors, held responsible for a tragic litany of marriage break-ups and suicides, made it even more unpopular than the politicians who invented it.

While fathers' campaigned for their rights, the 1989 Children Act and "no-fault" divorce aimed to put the child's welfare above all. Children can "divorce" their parents, and smacking is likely to become unlawful.

After a year that has seen the first NHS surrogate birth, the destruction of 3,000 frozen embryos, selective abortion of a twin and Mandy Allwood's ill-fated pregnancy, will the test-tube supersede the wedding ring as a symbol of the family?