Family Life Cycle

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The concept of the life cycle was originally developed for individuals and was then extended to an aggregate, the family, in influential articles published in the 1930s. The life cycle for a family includes three major phases. The first, family formation, extends from marriage to the birth of the first child. The second phase, family development, consists of extension as children are born and contraction as they leave home. The third phase, family dissolution, extends from the death of the first spouse to the death of the second spouse.

As originally formulated, the concept of a family life cycle was crucially linked to the nuclear family, the events of marriage and childbearing, and a presumed continuity of membership. Later social scientists broadened the definitions of the family and its phases and avoided restrictive or normative definitions that require formal marriage or childbearing. Many individuals never marry, many couples never have children, and many couples divorce and remarry with or without children. It is common to encompass these broad variations under the rubric of the life course, rather than the life cycle, for families as well as for individuals.

Analytical Approaches

Many of the attributes of a family are simply the attributes of the members of that family and can be studied with individuals as units of analysis. The concept of the family life course has value to the degree that the lives of family members are interdependent, with a collective identity and continuity over time.

Because the family is a social unit, usually consisting at least of two adults or one adult and at least one child, it inherently has less continuity than an individual person. An individual has dates of birth and death, but there is much less precision about the dates when a family begins or ends. There may be a typical or modal life course for a family and typical amounts of time spent in different phases, but the sequences and durations can vary greatly.

Much research has tried to articulate the links between individuals and families. For example, most individuals make a transition from being a child in one family–the family of socialization–to being an adult in another family. Life table methods have been devised to produce synthetic measures, such as the expected number of years that an individual would spend as a child in a two-parent household, as a married adult with children living in the household, as a widowed person, and so on. Another strategy is to follow a family over time by linking it to a particular member, termed an index person, such as the senior female. When the family status of such a woman determines the family unit, it is possible to describe transitions in the woman's life course as transitions in the family's life course. There is less concern than in the past over identifying a single individual as the head of the family. For example, the U.S. Census Bureau last used this concept in the 1970 census.

Family Formation and Development

A family generally begins with a union between a man and a woman. (In some countries, same-sex unions are also accorded a legal status equivalent to that of the family.) High levels of education and legal protections have led to greater economic independence for women, and their status is less tied to being married and to the status of their spouse than in the past. Thus, age at marriage has risen for couples in Europe and the United States; couples may cohabit for years before marrying, and some couples never marry. Many women work after marriage, sometimes because of a need for two incomes and sometimes because of the importance of work itself for the woman's identity.

The traditional link between marriage and childbearing has been weakened in several respects. Many married couples never have children, and many children are raised by a single parent, either never-married or divorced. Increased education and labor force participation of women has had substantial effects on the pattern of childbearing. Children tend to be born later and closer together.

In virtually all developed countries, fertility is below replacement level, and in most developing countries it has fallen dramatically since the 1960s. In general, parents provide far more support for their children than they expect ever to receive in return. A large share of family resources is dedicated to the education and socialization of children, although children tend not to regard their behavior as a reflection on their family. In lowfertility countries, it is increasingly common to have no children at all, either by choice or because extensive delay impaired the ability to conceive. Most people would prefer to have two children, ideally a boy and a girl. A substantial proportion of births beyond two are motivated by a desire to have a child of each sex.

Young adults often have an extended period of financial and emotional dependence upon their parents, even if they no longer live with them. Nevertheless, in developed countries the support of elderly parents is not generally seen as the responsibility of their adult children.

Family Dissolution and Reconstitution

Divorce and widowhood are approximately equally common endings for a marriage. Divorce tends to occur at a much earlier stage, often while children are present. Thus many children are likely to spend several years with a single parent, more often the mother than the father. Alternatively, because most divorces are followed by a remarriage, various kinds of blended households can arise. Children who are biological half siblings or stepsiblings may be raised, and may self-identify, as full siblings.

The generalizations in this article have been biased toward the situation in the United States, Europe, and other developed countries. Beyond these generalizations, there is considerable diversity across racial and ethnic groups, educational levels, and some religions. Probably the most important contemporary issue is the compatibility, or lack thereof, between women's labor force participation and their role in a family.

See also: Household Composition; Intergenerational Transfers; Life Course Analysis.


Bongaarts, John, Thomas K. Burch, and Kenneth W. Wachter, eds. 1987. Family Demography: Methods and Their Application. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mason, Karen Oppenheim, and An-Magritt Jensen. 1995. Gender and Family Change in Industrialized Countries. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mason, Karen Oppenheim, Noriko O. Tsuya, and Minja Kim Choe, eds. 1998. The Changing Family in Comparative Perspective: Asia and the United States. Honolulu, HI: East-West Center.

Oppenheimer, Valerie Kincade. 1982. Work and the Family: A Study in Social Demography. New York: Academic Press.

Waite, Linda J., ed. 2000. The Ties That Bind: Perspectives on Marriage and Cohabitation. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

Yi, Zeng. 1991. Family Dynamics in China: A Life Table Analysis. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Thomas W. Pullum

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Family Life Cycle

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