The late twentieth century was a time of unprecedented changes in family behavior, family law, and ideas about marriage and family life. Starting in the mid-1960s, in North America, Europe, and Australia, a quake erupted across the whole set of demographic indicators. It came on so rapidly that it caught even professional demographers by surprise: birth rates and marriage rates fell, while divorce rates, births of children outside marriage, and the incidence of nonmarital cohabitation rose steeply. The director of the French National Demographic Institute characterized the changes as widespread, profound, and sudden: widespread, because so many nations had been affected; profound, because the changes involved increases or decreases of more than 50 percent; and sudden, because they took place in less than twenty years. Along with changes in family behavior came less quantifiable but no less momentous shifts in the meanings that men and women attribute to sex and procreation, marriage, gender, parenthood, kinship relations, and to life itself.
These developments were part and parcel of social processes that Francis Fukuyama has described collectively as “The Great Disruption”: rising affluence, accelerating geographical mobility, increasing labor force participation of women (including mothers of young children), more control over procreation, and greater longevity. By the 1990s, the demographic indicators had more or less stabilized, but they have remained near their new high or low levels, registering only modest rises or declines since then. The legal and social landscape had been utterly transformed. Familiar landmarks had disappeared.