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Risk and intimate relationships: can hope triumph over experience in an age of ’messy’ lives?

28.01.2005


In an age when neither jobs nor marriages are for life, how do people perceive and weigh-up their options for partnering, reproduction and employment?



Precisely what those starting out on adult life today are prepared to ‘take a chance on’, and what kind of security they seek, are to be investigated in new ESRC-funded research led by Professor Jane Lewis of the London School of Economics. Rebellious students in the late 1960s were contemptuous of what may be termed ‘the standard career’, which promised the certainty of working in the same occupation until retirement.

A generation ago, personal lives were also much more predictable. It was not until the late 20th century that marriage was increasingly separated from parenthood, and family relationships became much more ‘fluid’, with people moving in and out of different forms of intimate relationships.


Professor Lewis said: “For individual households, these huge family and labour market changes have meant the erosion of traditional roles and relationships between men and women. “The contributions that men and women make to families in the form of earnings and unpaid care work are in flux, and the meaning of marriage and partnership has changed. “We are now in a world where two incomes are usually necessary to meet household expenditure - particularly in the UK with mortgage payments. As a result, a traditional marriage, in which the man goes out to work and the woman stays at home, may be put under as much strain as one where both partners pursue high-powered careers.”
People have more choice over partnering, reproduction and, to a lesser extent, the contribution they make to the family in the form of cash or care. But there is also more uncertainty.

A more flexible labour market makes life more tricky for the individual. And the erosion of the traditional family means more material and emotional issues that must be coped with - something that becomes more difficult still with the arrival of children.

Professor Lewis said: “Peoples’ lives have become much more messy - neither jobs nor marriages are for life. Nor are there any clear rules as to what kind of behaviour is acceptable. “Risk, as opposed to uncertainty, is held to be calculable, and it is generally known that there is a high rate of breakdown of relationships. But intimate relationships in western societies are also expected to involve romantic love- ‘the triumph of hope over experience’. “Policymakers express anxiety about family breakdown, and often hanker after the old certainties, but to date we know relatively little about the effect of all this change on the nation’s households.

“For instance, what kind of a risk does cohabitation as opposed to marriage actually represent? How do people handle their relationships when paid work may be uncertain or becoming more intense, and when children arrive? And what do they consider to be private responsibilities, and what public?”

Findings from the project are expected to be valuable for those developing policies for marriage and family support, or involved with issues of family law and policy.

Becky Gammon | alfa
Further information:
http://www.esrc.ac.uk

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