Peter McGraw speaks to you directly in this Solo Thoughts episode about the need to develop connections beyond traditional romantic relationships. In particular, he asks if you have someone to call in the middle of the night if you are sick or afraid, and if you don’t, it is essential to develop new friendships or invigorate old ones. Finally, there is a bit of bonus material at the end about an experiment that Peter has been doing called “Monastic Mornings.”
Listen to Episode #195 here
A View Of The Modern American Family
Welcome back. I have great affection for the Pew Research Center, the nonpartisan think tank that conducts public opinion polling, demographic research, and data analysis on social and political issues. Their work has been invaluable to me as someone who advocates for singles and is obsessed with understanding this rise of single living, not just in the United States but globally. I’m speaking to one of Pew Research’s associates who focuses on social and demographic trends. She has contributed to studies on parenting and trends in family life, gender identity, the changing workplace, and America’s financial outlook. Welcome, Rachel Minkin.
Thanks for having me.
I share affection for you, too. You co-authored a report titled Public Has Mixed Views on the Modern American Family. Several people from my Solo community mentioned this to me. I get emails when stuff like this hits. Have you seen this? I want to say thank you for working hard on this report. I live in an adjacent world as an academic. I know what goes into collecting high-quality data and writing it up in a way that is objective and digestible. How long did you spend on this particular project?
A few months go into each of our projects from the start being, “Let’s have an idea, build a survey, field a survey and look at results, and then write the report.” That’s many months involved in that.
Are you working serially? Are you like a serial monogamous with your reports? Do you start one and you’re only working on that one for those months or is it overlapping? Is it more of you’re working on some ideas and, at the same time, collecting data on a different one and then writing up a third one?
Yes. Most of the time, things are overlapping. We’re working on several different things at the same time.
We really live in parallel worlds. The difference is you don’t have to deal with peer review, but you probably have editors who make your life difficult.
We have many processes for data checking, number checking, editing, and reviewing all of our products.
I have to imagine that’s important in part because your work is so public. I wouldn’t call it controversial, but some of the findings are unpopular, so then you have very motivated people who want to critique this work. Am I making this up in my mind?
We are here to collect the data and present it. People can respond to it however they want, but we’re providing a foundation of facts.
That’s right. The point is the more confident you are in your facts, the more comfortable you are when people come at you. I know I’m being cheeky, but there is something very real about this. You don’t want to find yourself in a situation, whether you’re an academic or at Pew, where you’re having to make a correction. That’s the scenario that is most problematic in a sense. Let’s talk about this report. We should start with the data. How did you collect the data? How did you go about formulating these questions? We’ll then get into the results of it a little bit, which are really fascinating.
This was a survey of 5,073 US adults. We fielded it in April 2023 and it was on our American Trends panel. We wanted to explore how Americans think about changing trends in the American family and what some of their influences are on those views. We gathered the opinions of these US adults and looked at the data.
Those adults are a representative sample of Americans?
They’re often repeat respondents, so you lean on them regularly for their opinions?
Yes. The American Trends panel is a panel of over 10,000 US adults. They’ll be surveyed on a broad range of topics across the center.
What would you say is the top-line finding? Why am I talking to you? Why did I call Pew again? I had a previous episode with one of your colleagues. I’ve got enough nerds tuning in that I can talk data and they won’t go away.
Some of our top-line findings are that broadly, Americans’ views of the family are complicated. They’re nuanced. We see that 40% of Americans say they feel pessimistic about the institution of marriage and the family when thinking about the future of the US. About a quarter say they’re optimistic. In the remainder, about 3 and 10 say they’re neither optimistic nor pessimistic.
We also see that Americans are unsure of the impact of major trends in family life. For example, the fact that fewer children are being raised by two married parents is viewed the most negatively among the trends we asked about in the survey. Forty-nine percent say it will have a negative impact on the future of our country. The majority say fewer people marrying these days, people getting married later in life, or more couples living together without being married won’t have a positive or negative impact. At the same time, relatively few Americans say marriage and parenthood are central for people to live a fulfilling life. They’re much more likely to point to job satisfaction and close friends.
Let’s go through and unpack those. There’s a lot there. Some of it is seemingly paradoxical in a sense, to me, with this difference between marriage and then marriage for the sake of children. They’re diverging. Maybe you’ll correct my misunderstanding of this. The first question is that 40% are pessimistic about the future of the family. That seems a striking number in a country where most people marry. It is central to the culture.
The world, especially in the United States but in other places in the world, too, is built for two. This is an institution where there are 1,000 legal benefits of being married. You get married and get a whole bunch of other social benefits. You receive gifts for this. You are celebrated. You become part of the tribe, so to speak. The question is when you say pessimistic about the future of the family, what does that mean to people?
To put this in context, too, larger shares say they are pessimistic about other things when they think about the future of our country. Sixty-three percent say they are pessimistic about the moral and ethical standards of our country. We asked, “Thinking about the future of our country, in general, how do you feel about the institution of marriage and the family?” That’s where we see that 40% say that they are somewhat or very pessimistic.
Is there a sense that this is not a good time for America? It feels like politically and culturally, things are breaking down. We are in the wake of events with the pandemic, etc. This is part of a trend that Americans are not that happy.
We see in our data that there are majorities who say that they’re pessimistic about things like our country’s system of education. It is the moral and ethical standards of our country. More people are saying they’re pessimistic than optimistic about things like marriage and the family, our country’s ability to get along with other countries, and our country’s ability to ensure racial equality for all people. We can see that more are answering pessimistic than optimistic for many of these things.
Do you have a sense from previous data that this is a new trend?
We looked at these in this survey as new data on this topic. We are continuing to see where Americans stand on many of these issues.
One of the things that’s very interesting as a behavioral economist is this interesting puzzle or paradox where people often are pessimistic about the future in general. Some of this is fed by a media cycle that feeds you a lot of negative things that are happening in the world and doesn’t do a very good job of celebrating the positive things.
When you ask them about their future, they tend to be very optimistic. At the individual level or at the personal level, you’re like, “My life is really good and it’s going to be great,” but the world is going to hell in a handbasket. That’s an interesting puzzle. There are some psychological reasons for that, at least in the work that is being done in my field. This is a little bit reflective of that in general. You looked at what are some of the demographic predictors, like who feels more and less pessimistic. There was something counterintuitive with regard to the age of your respondents.
Age is a factor here in that older adults are the most likely to say that they’re pessimistic about the institution of marriage and the family. We see that roughly half of those 65 and older say they’re very or somewhat pessimistic and adults younger than 30 are the least likely to feel this way. However, to be clear, no age group is particularly optimistic about the institution of marriage and the family. We see that younger adults are more likely to say that they’re neither optimistic nor pessimistic.
Some of it is like, “I’m going to withhold my judgment maybe until I try this thing. Let’s see how it works for me.” One of the things, too, is that young people are projected by Pew Research to be less likely to marry. Pew Research projects that 25% of Millennials will not marry. That’s a sizable change historically. In 1960, 90% of American adults married at some point in their lives and then were also more likely to remarry should they divorce and so on. It was a much more prominent part of society that time ago as well as these young people who are considering alternative forms of marriage. I’d like to talk a little bit about that. This research looked at parenthood and the acceptability of various permutations of parenting. Could you talk a little bit about that work?
Sure. We asked about a series of different family arrangements and whether Americans view them as acceptable or unacceptable. We can see many Americans are accepting a range of different family arrangements, but the public still favors some family types over others. Families that include a married husband and wife raising children are seen as the most acceptable.
We asked about a husband and wife who choose not to have children, a single parent raising children, or gay or lesbian couples who choose not to have children or are raising children. Marriage and having children is a factor in these different family arrangements.
There’s a pretty big drop off in acceptability from that husband and wife raising children together. Ninety percent find that completely acceptable. Going all the way down to 41%, a gay or lesbian couple raising children together without being married. At 41%, it is completely acceptable.
Looking specifically at completely acceptable, you can see that range that we might say about half or more say all of the ones we asked about are at least somewhat acceptable.
It’s interesting. I’m looking at this figure. I enjoy the question. A husband and wife who choose not to have children is 73% completely acceptable. There is this view about having children being important, in a sense, for this institution, if I can interpret this. Married gay or lesbian couples, unmarried lesbian or gay couples, or being unmarried is what drives this down in people’s view.
We see in this level of acceptance that when it’s a husband and wife, Americans are prioritizing not having children. When it comes to gay and lesbian couples, they’re prioritizing. There’s more acceptance for those without children than for those raising children.
This country has made great strides with regard to equality, gay marriage, and acceptance of alternative lifestyles, but that’s not clearly dominant as reflected in these data, so to speak. You also asked for a variety of demographic information that you can correlate with these opinions with regard to these family arrangements and their acceptability. What did you find to be predictors of differences? What shifted?
We see differences in terms of respondent race, ethnicity, partisanship, and political ideology. Certainly, we look at a party a little bit more closely and see some of those differences across political ideologies. For example, across age groups, younger adults are more accepting than older adults when it comes to families involving gay and lesbian couples. We see that too among lesbian, gay, or bisexual adults who are more likely than straight adults to say all types of families are acceptable. Across the board, it’s widely viewed as acceptable as the husband and wife raising children together, so we don’t see differences across there, but all the other family arrangements.
One of the things that stands out from looking at this list of these different arrangements is that somewhat suddenly, there are lots of different ways to do family rather than this nuclear family that was so prominent in 1960. It makes up our media landscape. It’s the traditional view, which, in some ways, is not that old. We lived 200 years before in these extended families.
The family structure looked a lot different, in a sense. The husband and wife were there. The kids were there but so were grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, people who worked on the farm, and so on. They had these rich, age-diverse family structures. The one that we think of is this one that is so acceptable and aspirational for a lot of people as demonstrated by those views. This list goes on about being unmarried, a solo parent, gay or lesbian, same-sex parents, married or not, and so on. The American public is suddenly trying to parse what’s okay and what’s not okay.
What these data are showing, and correct me if you think I’m wrong, is some people feel strongly you ought to be married. Some people feel very strongly that the parents should be heterosexual. Some people believe that there should be two parents. It doesn’t matter what they are, but one is not enough, and so on from these data.
That’s really fascinating that people are not only having to tackle their beliefs about these emerging permutations of marriage and family but also that these are great opportunities for people who, at one point in time, this was unavailable to them. They were not allowed to marry because they were gay or lesbian. There was no ability or structure set up if you wanted to be a solo parent, for example. People could feel pessimistic about some of these findings because they’re not the wide acceptance that someone may have for it. On the other hand, like many things in life, you have to introduce these differences and opportunities. We know that people can become accepting of progressive ideas.
One of the most striking findings is the acceptance of gay marriage, for example, and how that has flip-flopped. You could tell me the number better than I can in 20 or 30 years. I tend to be an optimist even though I’m middle-aged. I would hope to see that with time, these numbers will shift more positively, especially as they start to get represented more in the media and so on. The modern families of the world are showing people that this can be done, and it can be done in a way that is good for children.
That relates to another finding when we asked people what shaped their views of what makes a good family arrangement. We see that the source of influence with the largest share saying this had a great deal or fair amount of influence on their views is their experience with their own family growing up. We can see looking specifically at lesbian, gay, or bisexual adults that they are more likely than straight adults to say what they’ve seen on television or in movies has had a fair amount or a great deal of influence on their views of a good type of family.
That’s very exciting. It’s not just television. There are books and podcasts. There is music that reflects this changing reality and is, in many ways, licensing for people. There are how-to’s. There are resources. I had Diana Adams on who is a lawyer who has a practice and a nonprofit that’s designed to support non-nuclear families. One of the things that a lot of people don’t realize is how the system is built for a married couple who are straight and trying to navigate that, especially in places that might be less progressive can be very difficult.
Let’s suppose you’re platonic partners and you want to raise a kid. You have a non-romantic relationship. You’re co-parenting but you’re not married. How do you go about having all the same rights and responsibilities with regard to having this alternative relationship but then also being a parent? We’re in a very exciting time, but one that is creating a bit of turmoil, uncertainty, and concerns. You mentioned people who might be on the right side. When I say right, I mean the conservative side of the spectrum. They’re not seeing their values reflected as much as they were once before.
I have to ask you about divorce because I was really fascinated by your divorce findings. You asked people about their perspectives on divorce. I like the way that you did this. You asked whether people divorce too quickly or do they make the opposite mistake, which is to stay married too long. Was there something that prompted that question in particular? Usually, you can imagine asking a question whether it is okay to divorce. That was probably a question that you might’ve asked many years ago, but this presupposes that it’s okay to divorce. It’s a matter of getting the timing right, so to speak.
We asked generally couples who are unhappy. Do they tend to get divorced too quickly or stay in bad marriages too long? It gives an opportunity for people to weigh in on not just the act of divorce but when it happens. We find that 55% of US adults say unhappy couples tend to stay in bad marriages too long compared with 43% who say they get divorced too quickly.
It’s an interesting split. It’s not 50/50, but the fact that a slight majority say, “You need to get out of there.” I found it mildly amusing. Is there any sense of what predicts those differences? Some people are like, “They’re not toughening it out. They’re not getting through that tough spot. They’re weak. They’re not trying hard enough.” Almost the same amount is like, “You got to get out of there. You’re holding on too long. Take care of yourself,” and so on. What predicts that split?
We see that women are more likely than men to say couples stay in bad marriages too long.
Everybody has an opinion that differs. The fact that women say that is not surprising to me. Data are pretty clear that upwards of 80% of divorces are initiated by women. That number goes as high as 90% for highly educated women. In America, when a couple divorces, it is often the woman doing that. Them recognizing that it may hang on too long also gels with that finding to me.
I want to pivot and talk about solos. I want to talk about singles. I know this wasn’t a survey about people’s perceptions of single living, but single living is the alternative to married living. It’s impossible to think about one without thinking about the other. I talk about different types of singles and why they’re single.
One of those types, I call the new way singles. I call them solos because they’re not traditional single. They find themselves, let’s say, unmarried or unpartnered not because they don’t want it or not because they can’t find it but rather because this traditional relationship, what we call on the show the relationship escalator, is not the right fit for them. The norms or the rules of the relationship don’t work.
For example, one of the rules of a traditional marriage is you live together. Some people don’t want to live with their partner, for example. Another rule, probably I call the 800-pound gorilla of those rules, is consistent, romantic, and sexual monogamy. This is an exclusive relationship that you’re not to be involved with anyone else besides your partner.
You asked people’s opinions about open marriages, which is a way for these new-way singles to have a partner, to be able to have intimacy and closeness, to perhaps raise children, and to have a non-exclusive relationship or be non-monogamous. At least, in this case, we should clarify sexually. I’m not sure if you asked about polyamory in this.
We defined an open marriage as a marriage where both spouses agree they can date or have sex with other people.
This is an open relationship, not a polyamorous relationship. You asked people’s opinions about these open marriages. Open marriages have been around for a while, but they feel much more prominent now. In this world of ethical non-monogamy, polyamory is on the rise. People are considering it more appropriate for themselves. There is even more acceptance more generally, especially among young people. What did people think about open marriages?
We see that half of adults say open marriages are unacceptable. A third say they’re acceptable. Young adults are more open to this type of arrangement than older age groups. We see 51% of 18 to 29-year-olds say open marriages are acceptable.
That’s slightly above half. That’s great. As a result, attitudes predict behavior. It’s reasonable to assume that should these attitudes remain, you’ll see these open marriages as part of the media landscape much more. There is perhaps less hand wringing and pearl clutching as we may find. One of the things that also is related to singles is this notion of caring for elderly parents.
Singles are disproportionately likely to care for their elderly parents compared to their married siblings, especially those with kids. The married siblings are like, “I’ve got my hands full. You need to take care of mom. You’re not encumbered in the same way that I am.” You asked about expectations with regard to children taking care of their parents, whether it be through care, through financial means, and so on. What are the expectations of that? I thought this was fun.
We see 66% of US adults saying that adult children providing caregiving for an elderly parent is a great deal or a fair amount of responsibility. Fifty-five percent say these adult children have the same amount of responsibility to provide financial assistance to an elderly parent who needs it.
That’s part of the agreement. People are like, “I raise you and then you take care of me on the other side.” This is a conversation that singles often have when they say they don’t want kids or that they don’t want a partner. That is who will take care of you when you’re old? This finding backs up that the expectation is that children will step up and take care of their elderly parents. What are the predictors of that?
We see some differences by age in these responsibilities. Adults age 50 and older are more likely than those under 50 to say adult children should have a great deal or a fair amount of responsibility to provide caregiving. For their part, younger adults see greater responsibility for parents to save money to hand down to their children.
It’s hard to get around self-interest in this world.
We do still see that the oldest age group stands out as the most likely to say grandparents have at least a fair amount of responsibility to help with childcare for their grandchildren.
Is that right?
It’s right. As they see that adult children have a responsibility to provide caregiving, we also see this focus on the responsibility of grandparents providing care for their grandchildren.
If I may, marriage was not invented to make people happy. It was invented as a business arrangement. The happiness of the participants was clearly not central. This was about creating in-laws. It was about business alliances. It was about the transfer of wealth. It was about knowing that these children were your children. It was a very practical, pragmatic matter.
One that I think for a long time and still in many places and for many people is a way to make it in a very difficult world to partner up, have the hedge of a second income, have someone to support you, and have someone take care of you when you’re old. The need for that has diminished in many places. Places that have a social safety net and so on make marriage more optional, especially for women. Women no longer are a possession to be transferred from a father to a husband.
What you’re seeing is the change in reasons why people end up marrying, but what these findings suggest is that there are still practical matters. People are creating, driven by love, these alliances with another person that are designed for a whole bunch of things. It’s someone to have sex with or someone to be a companion with. Some of this is someone to survive in a tumultuous world with or someone to help you when you are elderly.
I can’t help but think about how those corporate families or extended families were really well-suited for these issues where it’s not falling on one person or one child to care give, support financially, and so on. When you live in these big family structures, it can withstand the loss of a spouse due to death, divorce, or desertion back then.
Let’s pivot, which is related. When marriage was so dominant and was seen pervasively as a path to a good life or, dare I say, even a righteous path to a good life, people saw marriage and, by extension, parenthood as being central to a fulfilling life, a good life, or a remarkable life. Your findings are rather striking and lead to a lot of hand-wringing and pearl-clutching in the op-ed pages of the New York Times, Washington Post, and Atlantic about how marriage may not be seen that same way anymore.
We asked, in general, how important they were for people to live a fulfilling life. We see a majority of 71% saying having a job or career they enjoy is extremely or very important in order for people to live a fulfilling life. Sixty-one percent say having close friends is important to living a fulfilling life. Much smaller shares are pointing to having children and being married. About a quarter of each say those are extremely important in order for people to live a fulfilling life.
Those are striking numbers to me. They feel a little bit non-intuitive for me if you had asked me to predict that, I’m paying a lot of attention to this world. I’m paying a lot of attention to people who are not interested in being married and who are childless and are comfortable remaining so. This feels like it’s changed, but do you have previous data that suggests that it has changed? Do you have a sense of what’s driving some of this change from your survey?
We don’t have longstanding data to see a change, but we do see this come up in a survey we did in 2022 with parents with children under eighteen. Larger shares said that they think it’s important for their children to have a job or career they enjoy more than getting married or having children one day. We can see that this has come up in different ways.
Why is it that marriage and parenthood are so dominant even still? To me, the pro-marriage advocates would say, “It’s good. It’s the way you ought to live. It’s a path to a good life.” If you cherry-pick the data in the right way, you could make that case, albeit a misleading case. Why is it that people do it? A lot of people do it.
My father, I remember having a conversation with him. He was then divorced from my mother. From the outside as a child, I was an eighteen-year-old, I could see how those two were not a good match. I asked him frankly one day. I was like, “Why did you marry mom?” He shrugged his shoulders and said, “That’s what you did. This was the default.” What we’re seeing is that not only was it the default, but it was a better path to survival. It was a way to be accepted by your family, your friends, your community, and your coworkers. It bestows these great benefits. You get tax breaks and so on.
Some of the findings that you cited are fascinating to me. Simply, parents might not be saying to their kids, “When are you going to get married? You need to do this. This is the right way to live.” They are fostering a little bit of a solo mentality by encouraging their kids to be self-sufficient, to have a good job, to have a job that they like, and so on. This might be manifesting itself in younger people’s attitudes more generally.
You can’t agree with me. I know. For the reader, you have to understand Rachel is about the facts and I am about the opinions. Reflecting on this report more generally or overall, is there anything that stood out to you that you feel we’re missing that we should cover? This is a very rich data set and it’s complicated, but for the solo readers, is there something that we’re missing that we should chat about?
One thing that has related to some of the points we’re covering is that we asked Americans what they think of the trend of falling birth rates in the US, which is people having fewer children, and what impact this would have on several measures. Overall, many Americans don’t see these trends as having much of an impact. More say this trend will have a positive impact on women’s careers and job opportunities than say it will have a negative impact.
One of the things that I feel is inescapable for the modern woman is the difficulty of having it all and the mathematics of having a fulfilling career. You’re climbing whatever ladder you’re trying to climb being a wife and being a mother. That’s in part because while there have been great strides, there’s still a well-documented second shift. It’s harder to do that, so the rational response is perhaps to delay having children and thus have fewer children or pick one or the other as a result. Since people are starting to see their work as being a fulfilling path, they don’t see that as a negative compromise per se.
I appreciate you bringing that one up. It is interesting to hear that people see the fewer children thing as not problematic. Concerns about climate change are one of those things that’s a pessimistic view of the world. I have people who say to me, “I’m not bringing a child into this world.” They’re not sure about what the future may bring.
There’s also this other group of people who are concerned about depopulation. When I give talks, I regularly get a question about depopulation. I’m like, “If enough people start to go solo or enough people decide to be partnered without kids, we’re not going to end up having enough people on the planet.” I have my own set of responses for that that I’ve talked about on the show. My overall one is I’m not sure that we should be telling individuals to do certain things in order to benefit society, even those things that aren’t right for them. Nonetheless, it doesn’t seem like this small group of people who are concerned about depopulation that’s being reflected in the overall population.
We did ask whether falling fertility rates would have an impact on the future of the social security system and the strength of our economy. We see more people saying it would have a negative impact on those than say it would have a positive impact. There is still a significant portion saying it has neither a positive nor negative impact. We did ask about the environment as well. More people said people having fewer children would have a positive impact than would say it would have a negative impact.
That makes sense. These are complicated topics. For the average person trying to decide on policy implications, it is probably quite difficult. We should wrap up if that’s okay.
We covered pretty much everything.
Rachel Minkin, thank you for your hard work on this project. Thank you for your time and especially your patience with my editorializing.
Thank you, Peter. It was great talking with you.
- Pew Research Center
- Public Has Mixed Views on the Modern American Family
- Diana Adams – Past Episode
- The Statistics Of Single Living
- Supporting Non-Nuclear Families
About Rachel Minkin
Rachel Minkin is a research associate focusing on social and demographic trends at Pew Research Center. She has contributed to studies on parenting and trends in family life, gender identity, the changing workplace, and Americans’ financial outlooks.
Minkin has a Ph.D. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and Sociology and a M.A. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies, both from Brandeis University, and a B.A. from the University of Virginia.