The machine age has brought with it a great many social innovations. One change has had to do with the ecology of populations, their spatial distributions and movements in relation to resources and culture. Another has had to do with the natural increase of populations, the balance of births over deaths. We shall be interested to see how each of these factors has reflected itself upon the family pattern.
Urbanization has been an inevitable concomitant of the industrial revolution. Production by power machinery brought about the factory system which in turn required that large numbers of workers live close to the plants where they were employed. Not only was the city, in this way, made necessary by the machine age, but it was made possible as well; for without modern methods of transportation, communication, sanitation, and the like no large metropolitan center could long survive. So rapid has been the urbanward trend in this country that at the present time approximately three fifths of the entire population live in cities (centers of 2,500 or over). A bare century ago it was less than one fifth.
As America has moved from a predominantly agricultural to a predominantly industrialized economy, from a rural to an urban nation, it has seen its family structure grow weaker and weaker. There are reasons for this. Life in the city is complex, and its tempo rapid; apartment dwellings there are small and crowded; people's nerves are irritated by the noise, crowding, and speed around them; anonymity furnishes greater opportunity for infidelity; children often are in the way and are not wanted. City life is not as conducive to healthy marriage relationships as is the more natural and quiet life of the country, and as a result more city families are broken by divorce, desertion, and separation.
Mobility of population is another characteristic of an urban, industrial, secular society, and it, too, is having an unstabilizing influence upon the family. Where a family group transplants itself from one culture to another, whether this be from Europe to America, rural to urban, or any other change that involves a fundamental gap in types of culture or shift in types of association, there is often a period of disorganization sufficient in duration and intensity to have lasting effects. This is because of the conflict between cultures and the disequal rates with which family members assimilate or absorb the new.
Urbanization and mobility are only two aspects of population change, the recent accentuation of which has had a disorganizing effect upon marriage and family life. Another is the trend toward childlessness, which is a common accompaniment of these other two. The crowding of cities and the constant movement of peoples both add to the expense and inconvenience of rearing children. Contraception, a technological product of the industrial age, has made possible family limitation on a mass scale. The death rate has been going down, too, though recently not so rapidly as has the birth rate, with the net effect being a decline in size of family and an increase in number of childless marriages. It is important for present purposes, however, to observe that divorce and childlessness have been increasing together. Approximately two thirds of all divorces take place with childless couples, and while childlessness is in some cases a result of incompatibility, it is undoubtedly in other cases a cause. Children, when present in the family, often seem to supply a common focus of attention, interaction, and affection for parents, and in this way they help to cement the marriage relationship. It seems logical, then, that at least part of the explanation for the advancing divorce rate is to be found in the lowering birth rate.