We’re seeing a lot of changes in what the family looks like, but the concept of family is a really cohesive.

While researching our latest report, “Meet the New Family,” we spoke to Kathy Sheehan, who has global responsibility for GfK’s consumer trends services. Sheehan spoke to us about how and why families are changing and how marketers can respond. “You have all types of new and not-so-new family formations becoming more common,” she told us, but also noted, “It isn’t that family is less important or that the notion of family is going away. In fact, it’s stronger than it has ever been.”

From our research, it looks like the shape and definition of family is changing rapidly. Would you agree?

[Family] is changing so quickly, and when you think demographically, demographics traditionally tend to be pretty slow moving and easy to predict where they’re going. What’s happening with family right now is so interesting because it is so dynamic and changing so rapidly. There’s a lot of interest from our clients in understanding where it’s going.

The notion of family is ever more important. So we’re seeing a lot of changes in what the family looks like, but the concept of family is a really cohesive and important component of what people are thinking about—it isn’t that family is less important or that the notion of family is going away. In fact, it’s stronger than it has ever been. It’s just that the definition of what it is is changing and evolving very rapidly. The concept is still very, very relevant.

We see family is still relevant because that’s [people’s] priority, spending time with family. When we ask them what they want to be doing more of, it’s even more focused on family.

The traditional or the conventional family—a mom, dad and 1.x kids—is demographically no longer a majority in the United States. You have all types of new and not-so-new family formations becoming more common. Some of these are driven by the economic cycle that we’re in. For example, the increase in multigenerational households. Part of it is also cultural and demographic: You have an aging population, so you have the trend of people aging in place. You might have more elderly people moving in with their adult children because that’s a more manageable or comfortable living arrangement, given declining health. You also see a demographic driver when you look at certain cultural groups. For example, multigenerational households are much more common in the Hispanic community.

Are there any other key drivers behind these changes?

Culturally, when Gen Xers were the age or younger than Millennials are today, there was that sense of, you were going to move out of your parents’ house no matter what. And that was an important marker or transition point of being an adult. Now what we see with Millennials is the parent as friend as opposed to parent as parent. So the idea of moving back in with your parents is a lot more palatable than it was to prior generations. Again, that’s driven by the economy, but it is also driven by the relationship that Boomers have with their Gen Y children. So there are a lot of things—demographics or economics or culture—that are feeding into this fluidity of what describes a family.


Speaking specifically to younger generations, what will their families look like?What kind of family is the “ideal” family or aspirational family for younger generations?

The answer to that is there is no one answer. It’s a lot more fragmented than the whole linear model. For Boomers, it was a very linear “You do this, then you do this, then you do this.” That was the expectation, and that was very much what people aspired to. Not everyone followed that path, of course, but that was really seen as the norm.

Now there isn’t that norm anymore. It’s a lot more acceptable to do things in a different order than prior generations. It’s not so frowned upon as it used to be. You have the demographics of delaying marriage, delaying childbirth in the United States … we’re going to see these numbers just continue to go up in terms of delayed adulthood.

There isn’t that unifying vision of family as we once had it. The number of single households in the United States is roughly around a quarter. Certainly some of that is the older segment of the population, which tends to be mostly women who are widowers, because life expectancy is higher for women. But you’re also starting to see a lot more people actively choosing a single lifestyle. And marketers are reacting to that in things like travel and hospitality that are geared to the single traveler. It’s not a stigma. Giving people more freedom in terms of when they think about what is the ideal family, it just makes it a little less cookie-cutter and a little bit more individualized.

Speaking to that idea of “delayed adulthood,” as people delay the transition to adulthood, how will the family change?

It brings up a lot of things. The number of births per family will be smaller, so you’re going to continue to drive to a smaller household size. What we’re seeing now is the rise in people who don’t get married at all or don’t partner at all. So more single-family households, smaller households. A study came out recently that talked about how, for Millennials, it wasn’t that marriage wasn’t an aspiration, but there are just financial constraints. And if you overlay what’s happening around college debt in the United States, it makes it so much harder to get a mortgage, purchase a home, purchase a car, all these things, when you’re saddled by a large hangover of debt. People say they still want to get married, but it’s holding them back.

What do you think these shifts mean for marketers?

There are two things. One is being sensitive and open in terms of marketing and communication, and recognizing that the traditional family may be alienating people, and if nothing else, it might be an antiquated notion and seem quaint. When our last U.S. Census came out, to me one of the most interesting statistics is that the majority of births to women under the age of 30 are born to single moms. If you think about speaking to the single mom, some of the ways we portray family are not going to resonate to that woman.

So it’s being really sensitive and embracing how family is much more fluid and diverse. A lot of the advertisements that have gotten the most buzz in the last six months have really embraced that. Take Gracie and the Cheerios example with the ethnically diverse family. That was an ad that got a lot of attention.

The implication for brands and marketers is first, communications and messaging, making sure that you’re resonating with this new definition of family and if nothing else, aren’t being exclusive and just portraying family in the traditional sense.

It also speaks to opportunities in new products and new services. For example, we’re seeing a lot around the idea of parenting, not only parent and child, but grandparenting. Gen Y has an expectation that their children’s grandparents are really going to take an active role in parenting. That speaks to things like multigenerational travel. Is it really mom, dad and the kids going to Disney, or is it mom, dad and grandparents and kids going to Disney? It also means being flexible and thinking about the products and services that marketers are serving up to consumers and making sure they are tailored to new cohorts of buyers.