British Family, Gender Roles and Consumerism

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    Jan 19, 2013
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Nowadays, Great Britain is a contemporary society with multi-national and multi-ethnic families. For instance, an individual may have a mixed ethnic family background resulting at one level from intermarriage at various times between English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh people. At another level, there are immigrant minorities with their own ethnic identities who have come to Britain. They may have sometimes intermarried with the indigenous population, or maintained their own separate ethnic culture or eventually acquired a formal British identity through naturalization. These historical developments have created a modern society with multi-national and multi-ethnic families. A great variety of other nationalities from all over the world reflects the society`s human diversity and family diversity as well.

There are various debates and views on the term ``family`` in today`s British society. We can say that a family consists of a unit of people that are related, either legally through marriage or biologically. Nowadays, there are many different types of families (nuclear family, single parent family, childless family, cohabiting family, extended family, reconstructed families and same sex family). Nevertheless, families can be divided into two groups which include conventional families and deregulated families. Conventional family can be described as a network of interpersonal rights and obligations resulting from marriage and birth. Family ties are understood as binding together people of all ages and sex categories into groups whose members feel obligation to provide constant support for each other. Such interdependence within families is seen as the moral foundation of society.

On the other hand, deregulated families reject all group conventions and insist that family arrangements are a private matter to be freely negotiated among those people who choose to share a household. Personal choice and autonomy are regarded as being fundamental values in these families. The advocates of deregulated families in Great Britain usually do not belong to ethnic minorities. They are often young and childless. Alternative family culture also leads to the loosening of family expectations on men.  The ``male breadwinner role`` is regarded as an old-fashioned phenomenon. Women`s economic independence is viewed as an obvious acknowledged advantage.

During the last century, the traditional British family was the nuclear family (two parents and children living together).  However, statisticians predict that nuclear family will be outnumbered by other types of families. For instance, there is a considerable number of cohabiting couples in Great Britain. Many of these relationships are stable and long-lasting. They reject social conventions and consider traditional families, and especially conventional division of domestic chores, as sources of social inequality and injustice. Besides, one of the most striking changes in family structure over the last twenty years has been the increase of single-parent families. Due to high divorce rates and adults choosing not to marry, this family form is growing rapidly. Most of these families are headed by women. However, some of these families often have reduced living standards and are dependent upon social benefits.  

The number of non-martial (illegitimate) births is increasing as well. The number of under-18 single mothers has also grown considerably. These facts have caused controversy on moral and cost grounds. Illegitimacy retains some of its old stigma. But the legal standing of such children has been improved by removing restrictions on areas like inheritance. Statisticians also point out that family size is expected to decline. There are several reasons for low birth-rate. Child-bearing is being delayed, with women in Britain having their first child when they are almost thirty. Some women are delaying even longer for educational and career reasons and there has been an increase in the number of single women and married/unmarried couples who choose to remain childless.

Britain has a high percentage of working mothers and wives (almost half of the workforce), Many women are returning to work more quickly after the birth of a child. But although Britain has a great number of employed mothers and wives, provisions for maternity leave and child-care are low in European terms. The various families and single unites have to cope with increased demands upon them, which may entail considerable personal sacrifice. Families carry out most of the caring roles in British society, rather than state professionals. Most disabled children and adults are cared for by their families and most of the elderly are cared for by families or live alone.

This is a saving to the state without which the cost of state and health welfare care would rise. But the burden upon families will grow as the population becomes more elderly, state provision is reduced and the disabled and disadvantaged increase. The picture that emerges from these statistics is one of smaller families; more people living alone; an increase in one-parent families and non- martial births; high divorce rates; more people living longer and contributing to the an ageing population; more working mothers and wives; more cohabiting couples; and a decline in marriage.  British attitudes towards the acceptance of the same sex marriage, show a clear liberalisation of public opinion in recent decades. Since 2005, The Civil Partnership Bill enabled same sex couples to register as civil partners. Civil partnership is a separate union which provides the legal consequences of marriage.   

Several churches (the  Unitarians, the Quakers and Jewish liberals) support the marriage between two men and two women. On the other hand, the Church of England continues to oppose same sex marriages. Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, David Cameron, resolute to demonstrate Conservative Party has certainly modernised, said of the reform: ``I think it will be passed and passed with a big majority``. (Wintour, 2012: par. 15).  Extended family, (several generations of the same family living in the same household or in near vicinity or neighbourhood), has become increasingly rare. But, reconstructed familiy, (joining of two adults who have children from  previous relationship via marriage or cohabition), is becoming more prevelant.

In a contemprary Great Britain gender equlity is becoming a reality. Women have become an integral part of the labour market. Women are more educated and given more opportunities to expand into new fields of employment. They have acess to higher education and consequently to traditionally male dominated professions such as medicine, law, politics and business. Gender equality transformed many social, economical and political aspects of British society. Marriage has become less of economic necessity for women, who are now able to undertake paid work outside the home leading to their increasing material independance and ability to form separate households.

Along with this, there have been marked changes in people`s attitudes regarding marriage in recent years. Besides, the choice available to couples and individuals has become more extensive. As a result, fewer people are getting married. Women`s economic independance has also contributed to the increased divorce rates over the last four decades. Greater ovrall prosperity makes it easier to establish separate households after breaking up. Individuals seek higher expectations of personal happiness and self-fulfilment. Moreover, with the structural changes and the rise in divorce itself, there has been a removal of the stigma attached to divorce.

 British education operates on three levels: schools, higher education and further/adult education. Schools are divided into state (maintained from public funds) and  independent (privately financed) sectors. State education in the UK is free and compulsory for children between the ages of five and sixteen. Pupils attend primary school (divided usually into infants and junior levels) in the state sector at the age of five and then move to secondary schools normally at 11 until the ages of 16 to 18. Most state secondary pupils in Britain attend comprehensive schools because there are only a small number of grammar and secondary modern schools left in the state system. Comprehensive school pupils are of mixed abilities and come from a variety of social backgrounds. Some critics point out that bright academic children suffer, although ``setting`` divides pupils into different ability and interest classes.  

Wealthy or well-to-do families with children often send their children to private schools. Some parents make great financial sacrifices so that their children can be independently educated. Opinion polls often suggest that many parents would send their children to an independent school if they could afford it because of the quality of many of the schools and because such schooling may give social advantages in later life.   The majority of private schools are in England.  The independent sector is criticized for being elitist, socially divisive and based on the ability to pay for education.  But, private schools are firmly established and for many provide a choice in what would otherwise be a state monopoly on education. Independent schools play a significant role in British education and many leading figures have been educated in them.  

Great Britain has always attracted settlers and immigrants from all over the world.  That`s why the contemporary British families are consequently composed of people from worldwide origins.

A survey carried out in a number of London schools in 1980 found that only 15 per cent of pupils spoke what their teachers considered to be standard, or ``correct`` English. The rest spoke twenty different varieties of English from the British Isles, forty-two dialects of overseas English and fifty-eight different world languages.  These languages, moreover, are closely related with the ways in which people perceive themselves and their role in British society. For although the United Kingdom is a state, many people within the state think about themselves, their families, and local communities in quite different ways. One way of describing these individuals and the groups to which they belong is in terms of ``ethnicity``. (Story and Childs, 2002: 211).

 Ethnicity is a very complicated concept. Some families who belong to ethnic minorities maintain their own separate ethnic culture. Since assimilation or integration process are not always successful, controversial questions continue to be asked about the meaning of ``Britishness``.

For a typical modern British family, the most common pastimes are social or home-based, such as visiting or entertaining friends, trips to the pubs, bars or clubs, visit to restaurants, gardening or watching television and reading books and magazines. The most popular leisure activity for all people aged four and over is watching television. Some authors point out that ``on average, people in Britain spend four hours watching television every day, which is more than in any other European country``. (Story and Childs, 2002: 151).  Home has become the chief place for family and individual entertainment. Nowadays, people can buy things without leaving home and can be influenced to purchase by turning on their televisions.

Consumerism has a very strong presence in British society and can be a means by which people create their identity. It is taking place everywhere and affecting almost everyone. The truth is that obsession with possessions has become a way of life in British society. Britain has changed over past sixty years. Most British people now enjoy greater prosperity and opportunities than in the past, so that poverty today is a relative, rather than an absolute, concept. But opinion polls suggest that greater prosperity has not brought greater happiness for many Britons. Consumerism has helped transform Britain.  Along with the development of the mail order catalog, advertising has become a focal point of British mass media.

There are many facets of consumer culture that reach from retail and merchandise and to sports and leisure. Wherever people go and whatever they do, consumerism is praised as the answer to all people`s problems, an escape from some of the harsh realities of their lives. The main topic of conversation in a typical British family is shopping. While it may be argued that life would be rather boring without consumerism, the fact is that it is literally everywhere in modern British society and it is a bit overwhelming. Because it is so hard to avoid, it is up to the family and the individual to use consumerism to benefit them instead of letting it hurt them, before it destroys the family structure. Sellers are creatively successful when designing a persuasive advertisement for increased profitability. In a normal household, it`s the parents who have the financial obligations; therefore, it would be wise to grab their attention. On the other hand, it takes less than a strategic mind   targeting children because the simplest thing fascinates them. Marketing`s effect is more powerful through the vulnerable minds of children. The effects of consumerism damage a child heavier than an adult; therefore, every society should have laws protecting children from being commercialized.  Adolescents and teenagers are also obsessed with consumerism.

Many authors point out that ``the typical British teenager is viewed as the consumer `par excellence` and is seen by some, often older commentators, as a fashion victim``. (Story and Childs, 2002: 144). The members of youth subculture groups, (punks, hippies, crusties, bikers, teds, skinheads, home-boys, mods, soul boys, soul girls and ghost),  dress differently and buy different clothes. Besides, black subcultural  styles are very modern among young people nowadays. However, the difference among these groups are not only in the way they dress. Subculture groups were created within youth culture in order to express opinions and views, which were reflected in their behavior and what they wore. These subculture groups have their own established behaviors and values, often perceived by older generations as unique and different from the dominant society. 

The United Kingdom is a wealthy country and provides most of its people with high living standards.

While specific objects, especially psychoactive substances and commodities associated with youth culture, continue to give rise to moral discourses and government regulation, general unease about modern forms of luxury have persisted, whether it be in exposes of the excesses of corporate capitalism or the play on liberal guilt invoked by Galbraith, Packard, Mitford and their successors. In a recent Philosophy Today article Philip Cafaro outlined the elements of the ancient philosophers` virtue ethics that urged limited material accumulation and the disciplining of consuming desires. He concluded that less is, in fact, more, in the sense that rejection of the dismal life of consumption will lead to a greater focus on the spiritual and the intellectual. (Hilton, 2003:298).    

There is no doubt that many British teenagers and adolescents are causing trouble in their families. The increasing alcohol problem in young people in Britain is present nowadays. One of the main reasons for young people to use alcohol is peer pressure. When they socialize with their friends, they feel that they cannot say no in fear of being left out. Other reason could be what goes on in their home environment. A lot of young people are affected by their parents` alcohol problems.  Some teenagers and adolescents feel they have to drink in order to block out problems they have (bullying or some other kind of abuse at school or at home).

Some young people drink alcohol because of boredom, or to satisfy their curiosity on the effects of alcohol and to feel grownup. However, many people believe that teenagers and adolescents have too much money and they can afford going out and buying alcohol.  Their parents give them money, so they can support their habit. It is evident that their parents are too busy and too preoccupied with themselves and that they neglect their children. Another serious problem is drug consumption. It was estimated recently that about fifty per cent of young people aged between 10 - 25 had been using drugs, which are very appalling results. However, a number of social groups use drugs. These groups range from young teens to high-class older individuals who have different reasons and different acceptable standards of behavior. They often use recreational drugs.

By recreational drugs they mean such substances as marijuana and even heavier and more addictive drugs as heroin and cocaine. The common misconception that only youths use drugs has become out dated and inaccurate. Recreational drugs are not limited to any particular group in society, meaning that a wide variety of people choose to use drugs, including teenagers,   parents, business people and often very dedicated students. These drugs are a serious issue that must be dealt with.   People in affluent societies are more prone to drug abuse because they are able to buy drugs. Drugs affect families by overtaking the user`s life and the user therefore neglects his/her responsibilities towards his/her family.

Contemporary British society reflects British families. This society has seen a decline of traditional certainties. Because of that, British families became more mobile, stressful and conflict-ridden. The people are now more nonconformist, multi-ethnic, secular and individualists than in the past. Opinion polls suggest that the British themselves feel that they have become more aggressive, more selfish, less tolerant, less kind, less moral, less honest and less polite. Their society is sometimes portrayed in research surveys as one riddled with mistrust, coarseness and cynicism in which materialism, egotism, relativistic values, celebrity worship, vulgarity, trivialization and sensationalism constitute the new models of behavior.

On some levels, such developments have led to a visible increase of divorces and of dysfunctional families. Social fragmentations, instability, isolation and the disintegration of communities affect British families which show a considerable increase of alienation, serious alcohol and drug abuse, and disputes among family members. There are many different and often conflicting ways of life in contemporary Britain.  Families must adapt to new situations if they are to survive. Questions are asked whether the existing family types can cope with the needs, complexity and demands of contemporary life.

Consumerism, multi-ethnic growth, an expanded role for women, greater individual freedom and more tolerance for alternative lifestyles have helped to change British families, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse.


  1. Hilton, Mathew. (2003). Consumerism in Twentieth-Century Britain - The Search for a Historical Movement. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Story, Mike and Childs, Peter. (2002).  British Cultural Identities. London: Routledge.
  3. Wintour, Patrick. (2012). Tory backlash against same-sex marriages.      Retrived December 18, 2012 from

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