Family life has declined as a result of the belief that adults are autonomous beings and marriage has become just a contract between individuals which can be broken by agreement, Professor A H Halsey, emeritus fellow of sociology at Nuffield College, Oxford, said.
Lady Thatcher had assumed that individualism could be imposed in the market place without affecting the sacredness of kinship ties, but the move away from collectivism had consequences for the family, he said. Children suffered from the increase in divorce as a result. A consequence of the individualism, which began to flourish in the 1960s, was that children were often treated as objects when families split.
Children whose parents divorce tend to die earlier, be less healthy, obtain fewer qualifications, and are more likely to become involved in crime. This is because children need to see how two adults, their mother and father, negotiate problems and find a way of living together, said Professor Halsey. Without that experience they are more likely to have broken marriages themselves.
Professor Halsey emphasised to the audience - which included MPs Angela Rumbold, Peter Bottomley and Emma Nicholson - that Government policies had an 'appalling record' and had done little to support family life. Families had been undermined by the tax system and the erosion of child benefit.
Professor Halsey added that women were now worse off than they used to be because they wanted to be men and were combining the role of breadwinner with their traditional roles.
'Men should be saying I want to become a woman. The world would be a far better place if more men wanted to become women, than women wanted to become men,' he said.
A member of the audience argued that Lady Thatcher was an example which disproved his argument, by showing how much a woman could achieve. But Professor Halsey said that she was the perfect example of what happened when a woman tried to be a man.
Earlier he said that it simply was not true that we were autonomous adults - if we were simply calculating machines we would never have families because it is so expensive in time and money. The family should be recognised in fiscal arrangements as a productive unit, said Professor Halsey.
'Interdependency is a good thing,' he said. 'As St Paul said we are all members of one another. We should use this idea to curb the individualism that has been growing since the Renaissance and the Reformation.'