The New American Family

The latest U.S. Census data reveal that our children will be growing up in a different world than we did. What does that mean for our kids and their future?

We're more diverse.

row of houses Carlos Aponte

Today, half (49.9 percent) of American children ages 3 and younger are white. The population of white children under the age of 18 fell by 4.3 million since 2000. Meanwhile, the population of Hispanic and Asian children grew by 5.5 million.

Although immigration slowed over the past decade, our country has grown increasingly diverse as the population of non-Hispanic white women of childbearing age goes down and the numbers of childbearing women who are non-whites go up. "Schools and prenatal care and maternity wards will be the first to be touched by this diversity," says Kenneth Johnson, Ph.D., a sociology professor at the University of New Hampshire, in Durham. "Paramedics and physicians will need to be able to speak Spanish. English as a Second Language will have to be introduced into rural school districts where there were previously no children who spoke a language other than English."

Experts agree that this diversification has many benefits, especially for young people. It prepares children for the realities of the 21st-century workplace. "In a global society we have all kinds of connections in all parts of the world," says William Frey, Ph.D., a demographer and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a public-policy organization in Washington, D.C. "We aren't the major player in some industries that we used to be. We need kids to learn how to cross cultures, and our kids now have that opportunity. They're going to school and hearing different languages and learning different ways of playing." For this generation, multicultural education won't have to be in some theoretical lesson plan in a curriculum -- it will be the baseline "new normal."

This demographic shift is changing our multimedia experiences as well. For example, PBS Kids has upped its Spanish-language offerings, including an online literacy-game website for kids. It also recently launched Noah Comprende, a Web-original series about a 9-year-old boy visiting his grandmother in a community where no one speaks English.

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More of us are moving in with Grandma.

The percentage of children under 18 who lived in a household that included a grandparent increased from 8 percent in 2001 to 10 percent in 2010. Of the 7.5 million children who lived with a grandparent in 2010, 22 percent did not have a parent present in the household.

Malia and Sasha Obama are not alone in living with Grandma. The recession underscored the vital role grandmas play when it comes to supporting their family, both financially and emotionally. Though in the Obamas' case, multigenerational living wasn't born from economic necessity, it vividly illustrates the changing reality of what makes a household as busy parents try to juggle careers and child-raising. "American grandparents are the family national guard -- they are called up when there's trouble," says Andrew Cherlin, Ph.D., a sociology professor at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore.

That's good news for kids. "The more invested adults there are in their life, the more children benefit," says Amy Goyer, an expert in multigenerational issues with AARP, the advocacy organization for people 50 and older. "A grandparent can supplement and fill in the gaps and be another loving adult to help or just have fun together."

While suddenly sharing your home can create stress for families -- including clashes over everything from parenting styles to finances -- research shows that multigenerational living benefits everyone. "This is a positive story of family closeness when many people thought the American family was falling apart," says Dr. Cherlin.

Goyer and other experts don't expect this trend to end, even after the employment outlook improves. And it does have a darker side. As the oldest baby boomers age and elder-care expenses grow, many moms and dads will find themselves as caretakers of both elderly parents and children.

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More of us are choosing not to marry.

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21 percent of American households are married couples with children. That's down from approximately 24 percent in 2000 and 43 percent in 1950.

From Bristol Palin to Brangelina, more and more Americans don't believe you have to walk down the aisle before you have children. "Love, marriage, and the baby carriage have become unhitched," says Judith Stacey, Ph.D., a sociology professor at New York University and the author of the aptly titled book Unhitched: Love, Marriage, and Family Values From West Hollywood to Western China (NYU Press, 2011). "The stigma for unwed motherhood is now practically nonexistent."

Trend experts say that the fact that the Millennial Generation (born between 1981 and 2000) has grown up in nontraditional extended families -- including stepparents and half-siblings -- has led them to embrace the idea of family as a network of friends and relatives and isn't just composed of people who share your DNA. "Millennials believe in partners over spouses," says Nancy Robinson, strategist and insight director at Iconoculture, a global research company based in Minneapolis. "Those under 30 are not opposed to the values in marriage, but since many of them grew up with divorce and blended families they don't see the need to make the legal leap unless they choose to, kids or not. "

That doesn't mean Millennials don't want to have children. A 2010 Pew Research Center survey found that 52 percent of Millennials say being a good parent is "one of the most important things" in life, compared with the 30 percent who say the same about having a successful marriage. "This is a generation that is used to having their way in the marketplace, having grown up voting for the next M&M's color or the winner of Dancing With the Stars," says Peter Rose, senior vice president at The Futures Company, a worldwide consumer-trends consulting firm. That attitude extends into real life, where people are asking themselves about their hopes and dreams and applying them to their life as they see fit, whether it means being a single parent or having a baby with a partner you are committed to but haven't married.

The marketers who helped create these attitudes have certainly taken notice. Gone are the ads showing Mom and Dad enjoying their morning coffee while gazing at their kids. Today, a host of new ads, including a new Target campaign, show either a mom or a dad -- some without wedding rings -- interacting solo with their kids.

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Many of us are waiting longer to start a family -- but we are still starting one.

In 2000, women between the ages of 24 and 35 with at least a bachelor's degree had 1.5 fewer children than women with less than a high-school degree, according to a report administered by the U.S. Census Bureau. By 2010, the gap decreased to 0.8 fewer children for those same women (now ages 34 to 45).

Call it the "Delayer Boom." More college-educated women are having kids than they did a decade ago, but they're waiting till they are in their 30s to do it. Part of that has to do with improved fertility treatments; it may be economics as well. "Lack of certainty about the future has caused everyone to be more risk-averse," says Rose. "However you define risk we've seen people want to minimize it."

But this wait-until-I'm-ready approach isn't just about making careful career choices. "The Boomer parents have taught this generation that it's okay to question convention," says Rose. "You're far more comfortable doing things the way you feel is right for you personally instead of adhering to an outdated rule book."

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Flash Facts

  • Working mothers sleep 3 fewer hours a week than mothers who are not employed outside the home.
  • More than half of moms say their kids have a better lifestyle than they did growing up.
  • 10.5 million, or 22.8 percent, of working households had to use more than half their income on housing costs in 2009, an increase of nearly 600,000 households in just one year.
  • The median income for single mothers with children under 6 is roughly a quarter that of two-parent families.
  • Millennials and Gen Xers are less likely than older generations to say that a child needs a home with both a father and a mother present to grow up happily. Only a slim majority of Millennials (53 percent) and Gen Xers (57 percent) say this, compared with three quarters of adults 65 and older.
  • More than four in ten Millennials (44 percent) say that the institution of marriage is becoming obsolete, compared with 37 percent of those age 30 and older.
  • Percentage of married-couple families with children younger than 15 with a stay-at-home mother: 23

    Originally published in the October 2011 issue of Parents magazine.

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