Where grandparents, parents and kids agree - and disagree - on family life

Posted October 15

The eight living children of DeAnne and Eric Williams have scattered geographically — two in Maryland, one each in Idaho and Colorado and four along Utah's Wasatch Front.

They've scattered in other ways, as well, their lives and beliefs mirroring or diverging from their folks' in individual ways. Together, their lives form a tapestry that reflects modern American life — a mix of the married, the single, the cohabiting, the remarried.

By her own assessment, DeAnne Williams of San Antonio, Texas, says that even the most conservative of her kids, ages 17 to 37, are less apt to see the world through the same lens she uses — or live it all her way, either. They have grown up in different times, amid major cultural shifts: more single parents, more blended families and the legalization of same-sex marriage, among other changes.

The generational differences in the Williams family, it turns out, are not unusual.

Ask American adults about almost any family topic and some differences appear between generations, punctuated with points of accord. For example, American adults of all ages agree it’s important to have a job and pay down debt before getting married. But generations have different notions of what else couples should do before they tie the knot. Older adults say as long as you have a job and a little money in the bank, you can work on the rest together. Younger adults have things they think can and maybe should come first, such as living together or finishing college, according to a new national poll.

Those are among differences highlighted in The American Family Survey, released Nov. 17. It was conducted by YouGov for the Deseret News and the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University, using an online, nationally representative sample of 3,000 adults to measure attitudes about marriage and family life.

"Older adults often see marriage as the first step into adulthood. For younger people, it's often the last step into adulthood," said Andrew Cherlin, sociologist and director of the Hopkins Population Center at Johns Hopkins University. "For older, marriage is an essential part of being an adult. For younger, it's an optional part."

There are also profound gaps in viewpoint between older and younger adults on same-sex marriage, whether children need both male and female role models in the home and whether marriage is even necessary, the survey found. On a number of questions, younger folks were more likely than their elders to neither agree nor disagree with certain propositions about marriage and family life.

"The younger generation really has grabbed the idea of moral relativism," said Brian Willoughby, assistant professor of family life at BYU, who was not involved in the survey. "I'm not supposed to judge anyone else."

What comes first?

Different portraits of what matters before marrying emerge in the survey, depending on which generation answers.

All age groups agree that a stable job is at least somewhat important prior to marriage — 89 percent of adults 18-29 and 94 percent of seniors 65-plus say this. Similarly large numbers agree that people should be saving or paying off debt before tying the knot.

Where generations disagree is on whether couples should live together before marriage. A lot of young adults, roughly 60 percent of those age 18-44, think it's at least somewhat important for two people to live together, compared to 23 percent of seniors. More than a third of adults under age 65 think having had several serious relationships is important, while only a fourth of those over 65 think so.

Comparatively few people think it important to own a home before marrying, but more young adults — 39 percent of those age 18-29 — say this, compared to just 20 percent of seniors. There is also a slight difference on the question of whether finishing college is important before marriage; 60 percent of young adults and 50 percent of seniors think so. Finishing college is more important to higher income individuals, too.

Among those who are married, those up to age 29 are more likely to say they’ve had a serious argument in their marriage or that their marriage is in trouble compared to older generations, although they are also more likely to say their marriage is stronger than it was two years before. Younger couples are also more likely than older couples to say they hide finances from each other, and they have sex more often.

Since their marriage nearly 40 years ago, Eric and DeAnne Williams have done their best to be examples to their children and to explain what they believe is right, she said. But they've also accepted that their children's lives will be their own. They try to keep most disagreements respectful, even lighthearted, unless there are factual error that needs to be corrected. If the difference is one of opinion, they really try — sometimes it's hard — to let it go.

"We want our kids to have opinions," she said.

There is no shortage of differing opinions at the Williams family Thanksgiving dinner table — nor between generations of American adults more generally.

Policy divides

The survey also addressed political attitudes, revealing what Richard Reeves, co-director of the Center on Children and Family at Brookings Institution and a consultant on the survey, calls a "steep ideological divide" with implications for how people see marriage overall. Young adults and liberals are more likely than conservatives and older adults to say that the Supreme Court decision in June will strengthen families.

"Whether you think equal marriage will strengthen marriages or not bears directly on what you think marriage is," he said. "If you think it's an institution which is about consenting adults making public and enduring commitments to each other, then allowing same-sex couples to do it could strengthen marriage because more people can do it.

"If you see marriage as exclusively an institution for heterosexual couples to procreate and to raise children, then obviously same-sex marriage is threatening to that idea."

The survey also shows differences by age when it comes to divorce, with younger folks again more liberal, said Jeremy C. Pope, co-director of CSED, associate professor of political science and co-author of the report. Their thoughts on some facets of family life are often more theoretical than experiential, because they haven't had as many opportunities to form unions or dissolve them, he said. He added that when younger adults think about children who might be impacted by divorce, "their ideas become similar to older groups."

Other polls have found clear age patterns on attitudes about family, said Paul Taylor, co-author with Pew Research Center of “The Next America: Boomers, Millennials and the New Generation Showdown."

One of the dramatic findings of the last half century, he said, has been the “decoupling of marriage and parenting.” Today, 40 percent of new births are to single moms, part of a steady 50-year pattern that saw its first downtick last year. “This is something that most Americans of all ages think is a bad thing, but behavior has continued to move in that direction. Millennials are less likely than older generations to say it’s bad, but they, too, think being born to single moms isn’t good for society and kids,” said Taylor.

Stark generational gaps on questions like these can add complexity to family relationships. DeAnne Williams, who is 60, said she opposes cohabitation and gay marriage. She would not, however, stop loving her children because they see or do things differently. But it poses a quandary for her.

“You'd want them to be part of your life, but how do you do that and not violate your beliefs?” she asked, adding it’s harder to find common ground and keep the relationship strong when points of contention drive wedges. She thinks her husband negotiates that a little better.

Her children, Tommy, Paul and Jennifer Williams, express different degrees of tolerance for others' choices.

“I think I am less judgmental than my parents, but not as less judgmental as some of my friends. I am not that accepting and approving,” said Jennifer Williams, 36, who lives in the Washington, D.C., area. “But I don’t feel like I have to tell people how to live their lives.”

She describes herself as “right of center, a little more conservative. But I appreciate that liberals want to also love each other.”

Her brother Paul Williams, a 28-year-old high school English teacher in Rexburg, Idaho, said he may not condone someone else’s choice, “but I’m not going to throw rocks at windows, either. I am not necessarily an activist on how others live their lives. I am very pro-tolerance.”

Tommy Williams, 24, married and a college student in Provo, Utah, described himself as flexible and "more liberal" than his parents. Like others of his generation, who Taylor said overwhelmingly prefer an egalitarian relationship when it comes to making money and taking care of household tasks, he said when he and his wife Anna have kids some day, it won't matter which of them stays home to provide care.

Taylor said even older adults have come around to a more egalitarian view of household chores, with one exception. When asked who should stay home with the kids, the answer is overwhelmingly the mother.

Views on marriage

While most adults hold marriage in high regard across age categories, the survey found young adults more likely to agree that marriage is obsolete. Taylor points out that this generation of young adults is the slowest in the country’s history to get married — about six years slower than for other generations.

“Younger people are less likely to think that society is made better off by marriage than those who are older, even when you look at married people vs. unmarried people,” said Christopher F. Karpowitz, co-director of CSED, associate professor of political science and co-author of the study.

“Older Americans are simply more supportive of marriage as an institution than younger people," he said. "If you look at young people who themselves are married, they’re more positive than those who are not married, but you still see change across ages.” Three quarters of adults 18-29 are unmarried, and this group expresses the least positive attitudes about marriage.

Experts say some generational differences are expected of folks of a certain age, and that attitudes can change with age. It's quite likely today's older respondents were more tolerant and liberal in their younger years and that today's younger adults will find themselves becoming more conservative over time, said W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, scholar with both American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Family Studies and a consultant on the survey.

Still, Taylor said indications are that while more people may marry as they age, the marriage rate is still not apt to reach the same level as today's older adults. No one's predicting a big rebound for marriage, he said.

That's not because it's unpopular. "Marriage is still on a pedestal. Significant shares of millennials cannot get from there to here. They have a difficult life economically and find it hard to get started. Many are living at home into their 20s — in some cases, 30s and beyond,” he said. While many factors in the rising age of marriage may be at play, he believes the biggest reason is economic.

Wendy Wang, senior researcher at Pew, similarly noted that the out-of-wedlock childbearing pattern appears to be an educational and class difference, with more educated, wealthier people choosing to marry, rather than generational.

“Those with lower education somehow follow a different path than people with more education,” she said.

Technological change has also contributed to cultural differences between generations, said Sam Sturgeon, president of Demographic Intelligence, who consulted on the survey design. Older generations grew up with one right way to do things; now there are more choices.

He likens it to broadcast news. While older Americans had perhaps three news anchors who were trusted sources of information — think Walter Cronkite in the 1960s and ‘70s — younger tech-savvy generations have 100 sources or more online and can choose where to get information. In that fragmented news landscape, he said, they can — and do — pick and choose.

Despite differences between generations and even among those who share a generation, family is still family, said DeAnne Williams.

She was delighted last year when the kids organized a James Bond-themed bachelor party/birthday party for Tommy before his wedding. It was laser tag — where in true sibling fashion, they blasted each other good-naturedly.

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