New findings from OMD Insight.
We hear a lot about the changing face of the British family. Amongst other factors, divorce and lower marriage rates have changed the way families now live.
However, despite what some politicians and newspapers such as the Mail and the Telegraph would have us believe, the trend does not necessarily point to society’s doom. This newsletter is about the New Family.
The Changing Face of the Family
The stereotypical British family headed by a pair of married parents has undergone substantial changes in recent decades. Compared to the 1960s, there are now 25% fewer marriages but five times as many divorces every year. Attitudes to “living in sin” have also changed, with many couples in their twenties or thirties now living together (cohabiting), of whom only about 60% will eventually marry.
As a consequence, around 40% of children in Britain today are born to unmarried parents – before 1960 this was highly unusual. Today, cohabiting couples are the fastest growing type of family.
What about the Future?
This trend looks like continuing into the future. An analysis by the Office for National Statistics predicts that a third of today’s teenagers are destined to cohabit rather than marry, compared to one in ten of their grandparent.
But it’s not just about the way couples formalise their relationships or keep them informal. People are also having fewer children, with the largest subset of those cohabiting couples being childless. The ONS has found that financial worries are an overwhelming factor in the current trend of family downsizing.
The cost of raising children was such a concern that one fifth of all respondents without children planned to remain that way. Research by Liverpool Victoria has found that the average cost of bringing up a child has risen by a third in the past five years, to over £180,000. That means the average cost of raising four children has risen by £240,000. A big family has become a luxury only the very well-off can afford.
Barring a reversal of these trends, the family of the immediate future will be more constrained financially and less constrained by social convention. The New Family will also be inclined to behave differently over its lifetime.
Current research would seem to support this: cohabiting couples are increasingly likely to separate and more than 10% of all families in the UK are now stepfamilies. The family psychologist Professor Charlie Lewis predicts “We will see more single families and more families breaking up and re-forming, change will become the norm.”
Families future looks brighter
There have been dire political warnings about the effects of family breakdown, and connections have been made between these trends and a range of social ills.
In 2007, Iain Duncan Smith, now head of the Conservative think tank the Centre for Social Justice, declared family breakdown the chief driver of social breakdown. But such analyses often isolate the New Family from a range of wretched social conditions. It’s not all bad news. Compared with historical research, these more loosely integrated UK families are not only closer emotionally but are also more optimistic about their future.
Research conducted by ICM and the BBC found an overwhelming majority of Britons, 96%, saying that family life was important to them and 93% describing family life as fairly / very happy. The first figure is a massive 24% higher than a comparable survey found in 1964 – before the nuclear family had really begun to disintegrate.
More than a third of people now live within 10 miles of the parent they are closest to and just under three quarters are happiest around their families, in stark comparison to just 17% who say they are happiest around friends. Far from causing a decline in happiness with the family, the advent of the New Family has coincided with an increase in that happiness.
Several studies in the past two decades have also questioned the traditional view, with some finding that the stigma which once attached to new-style family arrangements was the real problem, not the arrangements themselves. Two studies conducted by the ESRC at the start of the decade found that the multiple transitions associated with divorce are not necessarily detrimental to children.
The relationships between children and their parents are complex and happiness is not necessarily determined by particular household arrangements. Such findings support the idea that although families may have lost the rigid structure and stability of previous generations, relationships within them remain intimate and positive.
It may be that people have simply grown accustomed to new lifestyles or that the unpredictability of other parts of modern life has made even new arrangements feel stable. Regardless, such studies show that the New Family is not just a reaction to old social norms, it is actually sustainable.
Implications for our business
So we’ve evolved from the typical nuclear family of the past to a new type of typical family - one which has a changing structure and includes new, more complex relationships. Implications for our clients’ brands include the fact that purchase decision makers may vary within families - there may be only one person in a parenting role, in the case of single parent families, or several in the case of stepfamilies. Creatively, advertising needs to reflect this diversity.
Family members may also split time across several households, so entertainment and leisure brands, and food and (non-alcoholic) drinks brands can celebrate the strength of family relationships and the importance of quality time, even if those relationships or that time seem diluted in a physical sense. Technology and communications brands must also be aware that they can help tie these loose groupings together.
Finally, the rising cost of having children has implications for financial brands - trends towards cohabiting and couples having fewer children means people may be enjoying a greater degree of financial independence and individuality. As more people worry about their children’s financial future, products such as trust funds may become more common.
There will also be more only children to spoil, which leisure and clothing brands will need to be aware of. The New Family brings with many opportunities.
For feedback or comment, please contact Insight Manager, OMD UK, Michael Tully on Michael.Tully@omd.com
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