Spring 1985 // Volume 23 // Number 1 // Feature Articles // 1FEA1

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Shedding the Cocoon of Status Quo

Risky, but necessary.

James E. Van Horn
Associate Professor of Rural Sociology
Family Sociology Extension Specialist
Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology
The Pennsylvania State University - University Park

Daryl K. Heasley
Associate Professor of Rural Sociology
Leadership and Program Development Specialist
Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology
The Pennsylvania State University - University Park

Deborah Bray Preston
Assistant Professor of Nursing
Department of Nursing
The Pennsylvania State University - University Park

"You can fly . . . but the cocoon has to go!" The swaddling warmth and deadening security of our cocoon-the status quo-must be seen as inhibiting rather than as facilitating Extension's growth.

The current pervasive social change has been compared to the time man moved from the hunting and gathering age to the agricultural age. Harman suggests that this change "involves a metamorphosis in basic cultural premises, fundamental value premises, the root image of man in society, and all aspects of social roles and institutions."1 Yankelovich argues more strongly that we're experiencing a sweeping, irreversible cultural revolution in the rules that once guided American life.2

Changes and Implications

Most dramatically altered in a relatively short span of time have been the family and the community to which Extension is intimately linked, either in program or as an employer. Here are some pervasive changes in the family and community3 that directly affect the future of Extension educational programming and organization (administration) as set forth in its mission:

  • Families are smaller; in addition, the number of people, young and old, living alone has increased dramatically from 7 million to 18 million in the last 20 years.4

    Extension programs and materials must reflect the decreased size of the household and the increase in single adults at both ends of the life span.

    The tenure of 4-H parent leaders, often coinciding with their children's involvement, will decrease because of fewer children per family.

  • The divorce rate continues at an unprecedented high level.5

    Extension programs must reflect the fact that many Extension staff, clientele, and leaders have experienced or will experience divorce.

    Administrators and co-workers need to be increasingly sensitive to stress created by a divorce (or marital conflict) among colleagues and need to consider making support counseling available for staff.

  • The majority of women, including mothers with children under 18 years of age, are in the labor force.6

    The erroneous assumption that the family is composed of only a male earner and a stay-at-home wife, who cares for the children and house and is available for volunteer work, must be corrected.

    Involvement in the workplace and limits on time will mean a continued decline in the number of available volunteers.

    Our typical meetings may attract an increasingly atypical segment of the population who don't work. Thus, emphasis must be placed on delivering the educational message to people in their homes, via printed learn-at-home programs, computer hookups, cable television, regular newspaper columns, telephone hotlines, and toll-free numbers.

    Heightened sensitivity, by administrators and co-workers, to family demands is called for in scheduling programs for clientele and colleagues and in scheduling extended inservice programs for staff.

    Office schedules need to be altered if Extension personnel and programs are to be accessible to the growing number of people who work during the day. Staff at all levels must experiment with job options such as job sharing and flextime (for example, working 3 to 11 rather than 8 to 5).

    Expecting staff, regardless of their family situation, to work 12 or more hours a day on a regular basis is unrealistic and leads to burnout. Compensatory time must become a standard nationwide.

  • The entire population is getting older and the number of people over 65 is increasing.7

    Extension programming that brings different generations together, especially in 4-H, should be increased. Support groups are needed by people affectionately known as the bridge generation-adults who parent adolescents as well as care for aging parents-and Extension could help form such groups.

    Extension professionals with expertise in adult development and gerontology are needed to interpret this aging phenomenon to co-workers as well as clientele.

    As our entire work force ages, more opportunities should be provided so older staff can gain satisfaction in program work rather than being pressured into administrative work for such fulfillment. Also, innovative staff development opportunities for these older staff are needed.

  • Many rural communities experienced a population growth in the 1970's that continues.8

    Extension programs are needed to help clientele cope with the challenges of community growth. Many newcomers aren't aware of Extension. Thus; programs must consider the changing mix of audience to increase our visibility and satisfy their needs for education. Administrators may need to alter traditional staffing patterns.

  • The nature and structure of the rural population has changed9 as 57 million people now live in rural areas. This number includes over 27 million women, 16 years and older, and 11 million of the nation's total elderly.10

    Personal observation and secondary data (census of population, number of housing starts, school census records, industrial starts) will help determine which programming efforts are needed to meet the demands of clientele.

    Programs need to be geared to people in transition in stage of life cycle, place of residence, and state and stage of employment

  • Rural employment outpaced urban employment by one-third in the 1970's due to expanding job opportunities in the high tech, higher education, and extractive and resort industries. Conversely, the farm worker force is about one-third the size 6,000,000 that it was in the 1940's.11

    Extension programs that reflect these changes such as career choices, managing personal and family stress, money management, estate planning, and introduction to rural living are needed.

  • Poverty still exists in rural areas. Rural poor families are likely to have at least one full-time worker, many have two or more, while urban poor families are more likely to be headed by a female, an unemployed worker, or people not in the labor force.12

    Extension programs must help dispel the myth among staff and clientele, including agency personnel, that rural poor and urban poor are similar in nature and structure and can receive the same programs to resolve their needs.

  • Rural crime rates are increasing. The elderly members of communities are committing crimes at an alarming rate.13

    Extension programs are needed that range from those explaining ways of burglar-proofing homes to those designed to modify behavior (always locking doors, windows, and field equipment) to those designed to change commonly held values (change the unrealistic sense of safety in rural areas).

    Administrators should consider hiring a rural crime specialist to conduct research across the spectrum of rural crime to provide these types of programs.

  • Rural communities lag behind urban areas in the provision of health care services and transportation. Housing conditions present more problems in rural areas than in urban areas.14

    Decision makers must be educated to the premise that program models designed for urban areas aren't applicable to rural areas. Services for rural areas must be based on rural needs derived from rural research.

    Administrators and staff need to provide educational programs for people that will help them deal with the lack of community services in the short-run and with problemsolving processes for long-term resolutions of such problems.

  • There's a widening gap of local government expenditures between rural and urban communities. Rural communities are lagging.15

    There must be an increase in interorganizational linkages-a sharing of resources if this gap is to be lessened.


This list of family and community changes and their implications for Extension is a beginning to be considered in Extension programming. Extension administrators must be encouraged to:

  • Make available in-service education that focuses on the changes that have affected families and communities.
  • Provide small grants to individuals to develop innovative programs.
  • Encourage increased use of technology especially in the area of programming.
  • Prevent physical and academic isolation of staff by taking steps to foster the growth of professional support systems.

Extension must operate within the constraints of its parent university, which often moves slowly. The intent isn't to create a Catch 22, but rather to urge an attempt at change. Change is always a risk. Yet, it's the only way to shed the "cocoon" and begin to deal with the metamorphosis that has occurred in families and communities in the last couple of decades. The challenges created by these changes are unprecedented; therefore, the solutions to these problems will be unprecedented and should be properly labeled experimentation. Any experimentation requires risk! Furthermore, holding on to the undemanding status quo will never lead to a vibrant, growing Extension Service.

The butterfly has only two choices - take a risk or die. What about Extension if staff - collectively or individually-refuse to take a risk and remain wrapped in the swaddling warmth of our status quo?


  1. W. Harman, "The Coming Transformation," The Futurist, X (April, 1977), 106-12.
  2. Daniel Yankelovich, New Rules: Searching for Self- Fulfillment in a World Turned Upside Down (New York: Random House, Inc., 1981).
  3. D. Heasley and D. Preston, "Selected Changes in Rural America," Rural Library, IV (No. 1, 1984).
  4. U.S., Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Current Population Reports, Series P-20, No. 357, "Households and Families, By Type: March, 1980" (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, October, 1980), Table 3.
  5. U.S., Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the United States 1980 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1980), Table 85 and National Center for Health Statistics, "Births, Marriages, Divorces, and Deaths," in Monthly Vital Statistics Report (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, March, 1981), p. 1.
  6. U.S., Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Employment and Unemployment: A Report on 1980," in Special Labor Force Report (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1981), Table 2.
  7. U.S., Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the United States (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1981), Table 35.
  8. C. Beale, "Rural and Small Town Population Change, 1970-80" (Washington, D.C.: USDA, ERS, ESS-5, Febru ary, 1981).
  9. USDA, Office of Rural Development, "Better Country: A Strategy for Rural Development in the 1980's" (Report to the President of the United States, April, 1983).
  10. L. Bescher-Donnelly and L. Smith, "The Changing Roles and Status of Rural Women," in The Family in Rural Society, R. Coward and W. Smith, Jr., eds. (Westview, Colorado: Westview Press, 1981), pp. 167-85 and K. Wilkinson, "Changing Rural Communities," in Handbook of Rural Community Mental Health (New York: Human Services Press, 1979), pp. 20-28.
  11. USDA, Office of Rural Development, April, 1983.
  12. Ibid.
  13. B. Rotfeld, "Rural Crime: Make It More Trouble Than It's Worth," Dairy Illustrated, XV (Spring, 1983), 28-29.
  14. USDA, Office of Rural Development, April, 1983.
  15. Ibid.