Changing Patterns of the Family – Implications for the Future of Care

One of the most fervent wishes of most people is to enjoy a happy family life and a stable partnership. 82% of all Germans want children and, in a survey by the pollster Allensbach Institute, 84% of the population stated that the times among their closest family were strong or very strong.[1] Marriage and a family are still values central to the life of the vast majority of the population; they are, however, in competition with other ways of life and have come under pressure through changes in society. It is debatable though, whether we can say that marriage has suffered a loss of importance; perhaps it is just that expectations are now higher. And perhaps the low birth rate reflects a very conscious parental responsibility. There is obviously a tension between the wish for stable marriages and families, on the one hand, and societal reality with high divorce rates and a large number of singles and lone parents, on the other. Here are some of the fundamental processes of change to which families have contributed, and challenges they face:

First: Long periods of education and training, and difficulties in entering working life. The consequence is that women are having children later in life and putting off the time more and more. On average, women give birth for the first time at the age of 29, according to current figures. The window of opportunity for founding a family has therefore become shorter. 60% of children are born to mothers aged between 26 and 35. Reproductive medicine is playing an increasing role in this context.

Second: A third of all children are born out of wedlock, which is twice as many as only twenty years ago. There is a marked difference between the western and eastern parts of Germany: there the percentage of children born to unmarried parents is, respectively, 28% and 61%. The connection between marriage and births – and thus also between marriage and the family – is dissolving. While 72% of families still consist of parents with children,[2] families based on marriage are increasingly turning into patchwork configurations. So there is increasing diversity in family life. The make-up of a family is not just a matter of fate – it is more and more a “do-it-yourself” community based on conscious, often tense decisions, from family planning to a patchwork family.

Third: The societal and economic gap is growing – not only because social milieus are rapidly falling apart.There is a striking polarisation in the way single and double earner households are socially situated, particularly between those caring for children and those with no children to look after. Due to problems with their work-life balance, women often put off their career ambitions as soon as children are born, and work part-time. At the same time, however, family work brings little financial reward – at most if it is rooted in a marriage or life partnership. For that reason, too, single parents, who can hardly work full time, show above-average rates of income poverty.[3]

In terms of family policy, the German model is somewhere in the middle compared to other countries. On the one hand, with a high rate of women in employment, individual taxation, government-funded care and whole-day schools there is Lutheran Scandinavia with its strong public health system as well as secular, centralized France. On the other hand, an even greater privatisation of family and care services is taking place in Catholic Italy or Spain. Here – even more clearly than in a comparison of eastern and western Germany – we see that the birth rate is high where infrastructural services permit employment and, where they are lacking, it is particularly low. This is quite obviously independent of the picture of the family normally represented on religious grounds or as an ethical norm.

Fourth: The cultural diversity of families is growing. Just under 30% have a migration background, according to a 2009 microcensus in Germany, with a quarter of migrant families coming from Turkey. In inter-confessional marriages, in partnerships in which only one member belongs to a church and, in particular, in bicultural families with different religious backgrounds it is a challenge to get to know the different traditions and, where possible, find common ways forward. That applies particularly with respect to ritualised rites of passage such as weddings, baptisms or circumcision, and burial. Where that does not succeed the trend towards secularisation grows. Here lies a great challenge for the churches and mosque communities.

Behind the current statistics lie long-term processes of change. Globalisation, along with opportunities for travel and working abroad, is ever more frequently leading to partnerships across national and cultural borders. And the medical potential for family planning has accelerated the women’s emancipation movements that began long ago. We live in a work society and the growing expectations of worker mobility have a centrifugal impact; they make it hard to keep families together in space and time. Many couples go through phases of life in which they are separated for long periods for work reasons. This affects every third couple in their early working life – i.e. in the period of founding a family – and for many it is the natural price of professional mobility and a career. Fathers from declining regions are often away from their families during the week because they commute long distances. Living alone has not been a transitory stage for a long time now. Remaining single seems to be the best way of living out the values of an individualist society, according to US sociologist Eric Klinenberg. Living alone means autonomy: freedom, self-fulfilment and self-control.[4] In the declining regions the buildings remain behind, along with older people, who find it hard to sell their houses, and mothers with small children – everyone who is particularly dependent on others. When their survival on the labour market is in question, everything that ties people together is in question – the town, house or flat, and the family. For the first time, the majority of the population no longer lives in family households.

In view of the low birth rate, the upcoming shortage of skilled labour and the deep-seated structural change on the labour market, individuals are not the only ones facing the issue of how to best combine education, gainful employment and caring for a family – and with more gender justice as well. That raises a great sociopolitical challenge, extending far beyond the field of classical family policy. After all, the dynamic of change is increasing and there is a growing expectation of mobility. While changing in jobs and status was something that took place from generation to generation, even up to the period after World War II, since the late 20th century people have had[u1] [CC2]  several professions and often several partnerships in the course of their own lives. The sheer number of work and life relationships is rising and the possibility of putting down roots in one place is dwindling. It is no wonder that many people yearn to be able to find their place in the great, sometimes disturbing transformation processes, to feel at home in a reliable community – in their family, home region, friendships.

But individualisation and acceleration also show up in a microcosm: the different rhythms of business life, school and leisure-time clash within the family. Often only Sunday or public holidays are left for family members to really enjoy each other’s company – eating, talking and playing together. When families celebrate together – at Christmas or on birthdays – memories of their common history resurface, changes become visible, and rituals help to interpret experiences. At the same time, fixed expectations may lead to disappointments. After all, the structure of a family changes constantly; it is always having to take on a fresh shape and form.

While it is true that the family lost fundamental political, economic and legal functions with the onset of modernity[u3] [CC4] , it is still of paramount importance for socialisation, social reproduction, mutual care and societal cohesion. Passing on values and traditions, raising and looking after children, care and nursing, the sharing of common tasks and solidarity between the generations – all that is practised in families. However important it is to have a good infrastructure for a work-life balance, delegating care work completely to service-providers is unthinkable, nor is it desirable. This is because the necessary trained carers are in short supply and because financing such an infrastructure would lead to considerable social redistribution. Above all, it is because care tasks involve more than providing paid services. They enable the experiencing of community, for which social cohesion is essential. According to studies, mothers and fathers wish for a better combination of long part-time or short full-time work and family time.[5] For that to succeed, the time people spend on upbringing and care must also be taken into account in legislation on taxes and social insurance.

Historically speaking, the care work done in the family has become increasingly invisible and disparaged. This happened first when it was known as “women’s work”, against the background of the traditional bourgeois concept of the family with its gender-hierarchical division of labour. It continued with the momentum of the work-oriented movement for women’s emancipation, which dissolved the traditional gender hierarchy in which women did the family work. And today, care work is still not highly esteemed by a society based on paid work and consumerism, in which what costs nothing is worth nothing. That applies to the activity of carers in the private sphere, but also to professional care, which continues to be much more poorly paid than work in production and administration.[6] If it is not possible to find new solutions there is likely to be a care shortage. That will come at a great cost to families, the educational system and the working world. And it is not just a matter of the necessary tasks of bringing up children. Most elderly persons are still cared for in a home environment and 70% of family carers are women. While more and more professionals are needed in the care market, estimates at the same time give the number of those requiring home care in ten years[u5]  as approx. two million[u6] . There is great pressure on women to take on this unpaid role and therefore growing tension between the working world, where both genders are expected to contribute equally, and the bias towards female caregivers in the family. One[u7]  proposal of the German family ministry is to allow for a reduction in working hours for both men and women during the intensive phases of care work.

The Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) in 2013 produced a reference text focusing on this area of tension “between autonomy and dependence”[7] and underlined the importance of strengthening family-based caring communities. It regards the institution of marriage as a particularly suitable area of legal protection for this community; marriage also offers a legal setting for the economic support of care work. The booklet concludes, however, that the guiding line of a Protestant family policy must be a consistent strengthening of all caring relationships: “The framework in which people live as a family and in partnership must not be the main factor. All family relationships in which people freely bond with others, take responsibility for one another and enter into a reliable partnership must be able to rely on the Protestant church.”

 What we understand by family is constantly changing, and it would be far too simple to understand this change as a story of decadence. After all, growing rights for women, children and same-sex partners have gone hand in hand with a great increase in freedom. In Germany too, European law with its protection from discrimination, has promoted individual equality and changed the relationship between e.g. legitimate and illegitimate children or homo- and heterosexual persons. Protection from discrimination has also changed the protection of marriage and the family as caring communities. Quite apart from the form they take, which has regularly changed over the centuries, the relations between family members are of such significance that, throughout the whole Bible, they come to symbolise the relationship with God. They also form “the background without which a host of biblical stories and texts cannot be sufficiently understood”.[8]

Living together in the family has a decisive influence on the way we understand God. The family is a vital place of learning faith. From the start, families and the Christian community were related. The congregation enables an extended ‘familiarity’, which includes singles and can also support families in different ways. In the 19th century, kindergartens and elderly care homes came into being in Christian parishes and the religious orders lived together in family structures. Mutual care-giving in biological families and elective families was an important factor for stabilising society at the time of industrialisation. For that reason, the New Testament statements critical of the family have an essential function – Jesus too stresses that a family is not primarily a blood relationship but an elective kinship in God (“Whoever does the will of my father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother”).[9] That is why church communities were, and are, able to take on the role of a family – as was the case very early, in the monasteries and convents that were a role model for the diaconal communities of the 19th century. Even today, in the second great transformation after industrialisation[u8] [CC9] , the aim must, above all, be to enhance the well-being of all. In families and beyond, in neighbourhood networks and in caring communities.

[1] Figures from Allensbach and Robert Bosch Foundation from 2013

[2] Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth, Familienreport 2012, 22.

[3] With one child they have a 46% risk of poverty, with two and more children even a 62% risk. In households led by couples, the poverty risk is between 7% and 22%, depending on the number of children.

[4] Those living alone in the US have risen from 9% in the 1950s to 27%.  In Scandinavia the figure stands at 47%.

Klinenberg, Eric: „Vivre seul, mais pas solitaire“, in Le Monde Diplomatique, March 2013

[5] See the Institute for Employment Research (IAB – the Research Institute of the Federal Employment Agency).

[6] See also Anke Spory, Familie im Wandel, Kulturwissenschaftliche, soziologische und theologische Reflexionen, Waxmann Verlag (Münster, NY, München, Berlin), 2013

[7] Zwischen Autonomie und Angewiesenheit: Familie als verlässliche Gemeinschaft stärken, EKD. English press report:

[8] Evangelical Church in Central Germany (EKM): Im Blickpunkt: Familie, 2007

[9] Matthew 12: 50

 [u1]Die Postmoderne fängt mit 1989 an, habe ich gerade gelesen. Scheint ziemlich willkürlich zu sein, je nach (französischem) Autor.

 [CC2]Genauso ist es. Zudem natürlich eine westliche Perspektive. Aber Ihr Text ist gut so! DANKE

 [u3]The industrial age? Das wNäre ein Leitmotiv

 [CC4]Nein, das beginnt ja schon ca 1830 – und die starke legale Rolle der Familie reicht mindestens bis nach dem ersten Weltkrieg… Lasen wir es so ..

 [u5]Alternative (ten years weglassen):

in the future as far higher than the present  approx. two million  (Quelle s.u.) Aber “die Zukunft” isr nicht klar genug. Schreiben Sie 2025

 [u6]1,86 Million bekommen homecare im Jahre 2015

 [u7]Letzer Satz hinzugefügt, scheint zu passen.ok-

Dann anhängen: not only in times of birth gvibing and education but also in times of nursing and elder care.

 [u8]Erklärend eingefügt; Echo der Erwähnung der Industrialisierung nur 6 Zeilen früher

 [CC9]Prima, danke