The iconic 1950s family of the breadwinner father going off to work and caregiving mother taking care of the homefront, has been described by economists as the most efficient family structure. Everyone has a distinct job to do in their “separate spheres” of public and private life. And in the 1950s, the majority of children were being raised in such “typical” families.

We all know that’s not true anymore. But perhaps what we haven’t fully understood yet is that today, there is no one “typical” family. The breadwinner-homemaker family, the norm since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, is being replaced by a new norm of diversity.

“There hasn’t been the collapse of one dominant family structure and the rise of another. It’s really a fanning out into all kinds of family structures,” said Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland. “Different is the new normal.”

In a report for the Council on Contemporary Families being released today, Cohen notes that in the 1950s, 65 percent of all children under 15 were being raised in traditional breadwinner-homemaker families. Today, only 22 percent are.

Many people assume dual-income families are now the predominant family structure, Cohen said. And while the greatest percentage of young children do live in such families, they make up just 34 percent of all young children, not even close to a majority.

And the rest of the kids?

  • 23 percent are being raised by a single mother, only half of whom have ever been married.
  • 7 percent live with a parent who cohabits with an unmarried partner. A category so rare in the 1960s, Cohen notes, that the U.S. Census Bureau didn’t even consider counting it.
  • 3 percent live with a single father.
  • 3 percent live with grandparents, but no parents.

As children return to school this month, Cohen said that they come from so many distinct family arrangements that we can no longer assume they share the same experiences and have the same needs.

How we got here is a combination of a changing economy, rising education, job opportunities and independence of women, a decline in gender discrimination and a rise since the 1960s of the welfare state, Cohen said, which made it possible for people to have more choices in work and family life.

“The big story, really, is the decline of marriage,” Cohen said. “That’s what’s really changed.” From the 1950s to 2010, married couple families dropped from two-thirds of all households to 45 percent, less than half.

Most troubling, Cohen said, is the rapid rise in single parenthood, which is associated with higher levels of poverty. A separate study of 11 wealthy countries found that in other countries, poverty rates for unmarried mothers barely differ from married couples. The gap was largest in the United States.

And yet, despite the diversity now of U .S. families, most of the laws and policies that affect families’ work and life have not changed. U.S. tax policy, the Social Security system, laws governing work hours, all still favor married breadwinner-homemaker families.

“People may be disappointed that we don’t have more stable, long-term tradition marriages, but people have to understand that, inside that model, was a lot of suffering, heartache and exploitation,” Cohen said, referring to Betty Friedan’s chronicling of the silent dissatisfaction of many 1950s housewives. “And truthfully, we don’t know what the ‘right’ level of marriage is for people to be happy. Likewise with divorce. Everyone acts like divorce is bad news. But if there were no divorces, it would mean that no one took a risk. Or changed. What’s the ‘right’ level of divorce? We don’t know.”

Just like today, with so many family structures, he said, it’s impossible to say any longer, which one is not only normal, but ‘right.’