Family Diversity

Today's Family: Diversity in the New Millennium

When asked to describe the typical American household, most people will answer, "Mom, dad, and the kids" - the nuclear family (Newman, 1999).  The answer to this question illustrates a major gap between the public perception and the reality of the composition of most American households.

According to the 2000 United States Census, married-couple households with their own children represented only 24 percent of all American households, compared to 40 percent of all households in 1970 (Census Bureau, 2001).  Given that the census includes blended families in the definition, the number of biological nuclear families constituted even less than a quarter of all American households in 2000.  The proportion of all households estimated to be the traditional nuclear family represented only about 8 percent of American households in 1998 (Smith, 1999).

Household Type Definitions

  • housing unit: an apartment, house, trailer, or any other structure designed for people to live in.
  • household: all the people who occupy a housing unit.  A household includes related family members and all the unrelated people, if any, such as boarders, foster children, etc., who live together.  A person living alone or a group of unrelated people living together, such as partners or roommates, also counts as a household.
  • family household: a group of two people or more related by birth, marriage, or adoption and residing together, and any unrelated people who may be living in the housing unit.
  • non-family household: a person living alone or two or more people who live together but who are not related, such as roommates or boarders.
  • married-couple households with own children: a husband and wife living together with children - by birth, adoption, or marriage (stepchildren) - who are under the age of 18 and never married.
  • blended families: a husband and wife living together with children that one or both partners bring to the family from previous marriages or relationships; may also include children from their union.
  • biological nuclear family: a husband and wife living together with children by birth or adoption only, (i.e., does not include blended families).
  • traditional nuclear family: a husband and wife living together with children by birth or adoption only, in which the father is the sole breadwinner and the mother is a full-time homemaker.

If this all sounds confusing, it is.  Even some demographers and family historians cannot agree on which definitions or proportions should be used in talking about family trends.  The proportions given in this comparison are based on census data from all households - both family and non-family.  Notably, whether discussing proportions of households or proportions of families, married couples with own children have been in steady decline since 1970.  Since the American family has become so politicized, both sides use statistics to bolster their argument, leaving many confused:  Is the traditional family in decline or recovery?  When you are working with families, it is helpful to know the difference between the facts, the rhetoric, and the media spin put on census data.

In talking about household type in relationship to older adults, it's important to include both non-family households and family households, as they are intricately interwoven.  For example, the decline in the proportion of family households is in part related to the increase in non-family households, such as single households and couple households with no children, both of which include a high proportion of older adults (Klein, 2004).  Changes in household and family structure have important implications for seniors because they affect the makeup and quality of an older person's social support network (Bengtson, Burton, & Rosenthal, 1990).  Furthermore, because many of today's seniors are living in the midst of this family evolution, there is a great discrepancy between the families in which they grew up and what families are today.

The Demographic Transition

The structure and dynamics of the American family have changed in several significant ways over the past century, particularly in the last 40 years.  One of the greatest changes to occur to family structure is the demographic transition - the change in population structure identified with developing countries and associated improvements in public health and medicine.  According to the demographic transition theory, as countries become developed, they experience a shift in growth rate from rapid population growth, to slow growth, to zero growth, and finally to a reduction in population.  Some European countries, such as Hungary and Germany, are actually experiencing a population decline today.

In addition to a declining population, most of these countries are also experiencing their population aging, that is, the country's proportion of adults 65 and older is increasing.  As discussed in Trends in Aging, the American senior population has increased from 4 percent of the population in 1900 to over 12 percent of the population today, and is expected to grow to 20 percent of the population by 2030.  Furthermore, among those 65 and older, the greatest growth is in the oldest-old age category, those 85 years and older.  Therefore, not only is our nation aging, but the aging population itself is getting older.

The information above is reprinted from Working with Seniors: Health, Financial and Social Issues with permission from Society of Certified Senior Advisors® . Copyright © 2009. All rights reserved.