Changing Social Roles of Women

Sometimes changes in the way people live are due not to individual efforts at personality change but to generational changes, which scientists call cohort effects. A "cohort" is a group of people born around the same time.

What is a cohort effect? What "remarkable trends" did scholars note in the 1970s?

Baby Boomers are one famous cohort, studied more than any other cohort. Dusen and Sheldon (1976) noted "three...remarkable trends" which had occurred in the United States during the two decades before they wrote, as women of the baby boom generation matured into adulthood:

—Postponing marriage

—Postponing childbearing within marriage

—Reducing family size expectations

What are likely causes of this widespread change?

The net effect is a reduced birthrate in all developed countries, from Russia to the countries of Europe to Canada and Brazil. Probably two factors account for this widespread trend: the availability of truly effective birth control for the first time in history, and the spreading aspirations to lead a materially comfortable life. In undeveloped countries, where a large family sometimes conveys an economic advantage, birthrates continued to be as high as before. In undeveloped countries or rural settings, where a large family sometimes conveys an economic advantage, birthrates continued to be as high as before.

How did the lives of 1967 college graduates develop in unexpected ways?

Rosenfeld and Stark (1987, May) found interviews with women who had graduated from the University of Michigan in 1967, twenty years earlier. Compared to what they expected when they graduated, far more were working, and far more were in traditionally "male" jobs. 15% were divorced, and many felt torn between careers and families.

As they aged, the baby boomers drew more research attention to aging. For example, Stewart and Ostrove (1998) gathered data from five samples of college-educated female Baby Boomers, to see how they experienced Middle Age. About a third expressed regrets about early life decisions, particularly when they had failed to pursue promising careers. For example, one wrote:

I would not have let my husband take sole responsibility for determining the course of our lives. His career has always been the only deciding factor in our lives, which has not been fair to me or the children. (p.1188)

Many of the women had experienced some version of the "mid-life crisis" (anxiety over unfulfilled plans or dissatisfaction with the direction of their lives). One said in an interview when she was 50:

For me, 35 was the big waking up-looking around and saying, "Is this it? Is this all there is? Is this what life has dealt me?" If so, I'm getting up and doing something about it."

Women who had "gotten up and done something about it" were more satisfied with their lives, 10 or 15 years later, than women who expressed regrets but did nothing about it (Stewart & Ostrove, 1998).

Single-parent families became much more common in the United States in the 1980s and 1990s, and the trend not slowing until the mid-2000s. The traditional family with both father and mother present, but only father working, was already a statistical minority by the 1950s. In other parts of the world, such as Eastern Europe and Russia, that pattern vanished in the 1930s or earlier, as husbands and wives were both expected to work.


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Copyright © 2007 Russ Dewey