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“Modern Family”: The Real Story of the American Family or Why TV Gets It
|"How can we reach moms?" The question comes up repeatedly in our conversations with marketers, and yet ABC's hit show "Modern Family" reminds us that the iconic nuclear family of the 1950s is kaput. At nearly any time of day, just a casual glance at the variety of shoppers in a typical grocery store reinforces the notion that trying to influence Mom as the primary grocery shopper is largely a losing battle. Newly emerging census information from the last five years shows us that remarkable changes have occurred within what historically constituted a "typical" household—even when it comes to the institution of marriage (an institution endlessly upended in comic detail in “Modern Family”). After all, who’s the mom in Mitch and Cam’s household? Neither one seems fully ready to embrace the title, though Cam often does.
Whichever familial title they choose to use, Mitch and Cam are emblematic of changing household structures that still reflect the belief that the American family is the single most important institution in our society. It is also the most historically diverse institution in our society. Of interest, given today’s recently observed rise in intergenerational families, one might begin to think of the American nuclear family of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s as the outlier rather than the form that tends to skew our current perceptions. 1 And nothing makes that case more strongly than recent research from the Hoover Institution, 2 which concludes that:
“During the past 20 years, the American family has undergone a profound transformation … if one was to define the most original demographic feature in the post-1980 period in the United States, it would be the changes that were occurring in both families and households for all sections of the national population.”
The key takeaway here is that the American family many of us think we know—often some version of the “traditional” nuclear family with one or two parents in a house with children—is no longer accurate. Nor will it ever be again. We would push even further, suggesting that there really is no more a generalizable American family. Just as ours is a melting pot of cultures, ethnicities, beliefs and values, so too has the American family come to reflect that diversity.
So Who Are We Really? The Family as We Know it Is Being Redefined
We all see the contemporary variation in family structure portrayed in television and film (e.g., “Modern Family”), but we rarely stop to consider the numbers. In structural terms, the relationship between motherhood and marriage is diverging—and will continue to do so. Likewise, single moms are getting older as they give birth.
As discussed above, our increasing “singlehood” is also evident in household living situations:
- The United States has the highest percentage of single-parent families (36%) among developed countries.3
- In the 1950s, the percentage of single women giving birth was about 4%;in the 2000 census that figure rose to 33%, and this figure is expected to keep rising. 4
- Births to unmarried women have undergone a dramatic reversal. In 1970, teenagers accounted for half of all births by unwed mothers. In 2007, that figure dropped to 23%. In other words, 77% of the children were born to unwed mothers who were above the age of 20. And 17% were born to mothers over 30.5
- There are 99.6 million unmarried people over age 18 in the U.S., representing nearly 44% of the adult population.6
- In 2010, unmarried households were 45% of all U.S. households. 7
- The number of cohabiting unmarried partners increased by 88% between 1990 and 2007.8
- 12.8% of unmarried-partner households report being same-sex. 9
- In the 2000 census, 22% of male same-sex households and 33% of female same sex households reported having children. 10
For those selling and marketing to moms, realize that you increasingly will be building relationships with single moms. And these are not “struggling single moms” suffering from divorce. Rather, these are successful single women who make a conscious choice to have a child.
Conventional “problem solving” and “solution-based” platforms designed for busy single-parent households may need to be redesigned for households that are single parent by design. Put another way, empowered single-parent households may not be looking for brands to “help” them out. They may, instead, be focused on brands that inspire.
The Redefinition of the American Family Will Require New Ways of Thinking
Realizing that the family is undergoing such dynamic change, we decided several years ago to explore the utility of an occasion-based perspective around shopping and eating habits. Rather than trying to track specific behaviors of families or ethnicities by traditional segments, we wanted to understand the contexts within how we all shop and eat.
Freed from trying to chase down the ever-evolving American family by segment, we would be able to focus on the context within which these families live, shop and eat, and in the process reveal a much larger marketplace.
Our occasion-based perspective is a new way of thinking that addresses the new ways of living.
For those interested in capitalizing on the tremendous opportunities in meeting the needs of the constantly redefining American family, we believe our occasion-based perspective offers significant upside potential. Consider the implications of this key finding from our eating occasions research: seven in ten (72%) family eating occasions involve only adult members of the household. Not only is the American family transforming itself, the modal family eating occasion is also rapidly changing. That three out of four of these occasions do not include anyone under the age of 18 should be a wake-up call to any marketers focused on the classic view of the nuclear family. We may as well add that the role of Mom as family gatekeeper will become increasingly irrelevant to what are now largely independent adult agendas.
More significantly, as a result of the broadly shifting landscape, 44% of all adult eating happens alone and 75% of all adult eating does not happen on family occasions. Eating alone may represent the most lucrative eating occasion. Now we begin to understand why marketers must look beyond marketing to families and family eating occasions.
1 The Return of the Multi-Generational Family Household – Pew Research Center
2 The Changing American Family – The Hoover Institution
6 U.S. Census Bureau. "America's Families and Living Arrangements: 2010"
7 U.S. Census Bureau. "America's Families and Living Arrangements: 2010"
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