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Friday, June 22, 2012

The changing dynamics of the American family

Trend Observation:  Not that long ago—perhaps 40 or 50 years—the stereotypical American family included a father, mother (the two were married), and two or three children.  The unit was celebrated in situation comedies like The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, or Leave it to Beaver.  But these days, the idea that all families look like June and Ward Cleaver, Wally and the Beav are far from accurate; things have changed, and not just in wardrobe, vocabulary and parenting styles, but in the composition of the family itself.

Evidence of this shift is difficult to overlook, especially after data started rolling out following the 2010 Census.  (As one example, see this post from the Elm Street Economics consumer trends blog in August, 2010, or the story that it referred to from USA Today.)   But it’s a good idea to check-in, consistently, when information is changing this fast.  So, with help from my respected friends at Scarborough Research, we did just that.   The data set we considered is from Scarborough USA+ 2011 Release 2, and here’s what we found:

Barely one in four U.S. adults describes themselves as “Married with Children.”  Specifically, just 26% of adults describe themselves as being married with one or more children aged 17 or under in the household. 

Just 56% of adults are married, according to the research (without regard to the presence of children in the home), while 85% of adults say they live in a home where two or more adults are present.

In other words, more American adults live in a non-traditional household than in what we used to think of as a traditional family unit.  Just subtract the percent of adults that are married from those who live in a two adult household:  85% - 56% = 29%.   So, more than 29% of adults live in a two-adult household, but are not married… while just 26% are married with children.

Just to be clear, that non-traditional household could be composed of many different relationships.  It could be a male-female couple that is living together but not wedded.  It could be two folks who live together so as to pool their financial resources during difficult economic times.  It could be couples described as gay, lesbian, bi-sexual or transgender.  It could be a single mom with an 18-year-old daughter (in the eyes of the research that is still two adults).  It could be a middle-aged man whose aging mother lives with him.  We don’t know precisely how to define these non-traditional households.   But these estimates make very clear:  Today’s traditional American family doesn’t always look very traditional.

Marketing Implications:  If you sell furniture that’s perfect for the family room… does your message reflect what today’s family really looks like?  If you sell “the perfect family automobile,” does your marketing consider—or even celebrate—the diversity of family styles that are out there today?  Once upon a time, Ozzie and Harriet were presented in black and white.

Today’s family is not.

[Editor’s note:  Our thanks to Deirdre McFarland, Haley Dercher, and Scarborough Research for providing the statistics that inform this perspective.  For more information, visit, or contact them at]

Mike Anderson, for The Marketing Mind consumer trends blog, a service of The Center for Sales Strategy.  

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