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Societal Trends--and Other Good News

Contrary to conventional wisdom.

12:00 AM, Mar 25, 2010 • By RYAN STREETER
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 America is evolving in a conservative direction. It’s now time for conservatives to catch up.  That is the conclusion one might draw from a series of data points most recently highlighted in a chapter tucked away in Joel Kotkin’s new book, The Next Hundred Million. (Full disclosure: Kotkin is an adjunct fellow of the London-based Legatum Institute, where I work.) In the chapter, “The 21st Century Community,” Kotkin, a well-respected politically neutral demographer, provides some eye-catching facts and figures about American families that have significant political implications.

Societal Trends--and Other Good News

The United States is riding a wave of trends into the next generation – during a period in which the United States will grow by 100 million people – that will make the workplace more family-centric, families more multi-generational, and communities more local.  For starters, Americans are moving less, not more.  In 1970, 20 percent of Americans moved annually.  That figure dropped to 14 percent in 2004, and by 2008, it dropped to 10 percent.  Ninety percent of people over 50 would rather stay where they are than move to a retirement destination such as Florida. 

This decreasing mobility is accompanied by a generation of boomers who are turning into local-yokels and whose children are more family-centric than they were when they were young.  Many boomers are moving into towns of less than 50,000 residents.  What Kotkin calls “amenity regions,” with identifiable town life, have grown 10 times faster than other rural areas and have slowed the migration of older Americans to sunbelt cities.  Regardless of what hip urban developers may say, boomers overwhelmingly prefer a suburban or town setting to dense urban life.  Only 2 percent say they want to move into an exciting urban community. 
Meanwhile, the boomers’ successors, the Generation Xers, are having more children than the boomers, and the Millennials (roughly those born after 1980) may be even more family-centric yet.  Seventy-five percent of 13 to 24 year olds say that spending time with family contributes more to their happiness than time spent with their friends, and 80 percent want to get married.  Seventy-seven percent want children compared with only 12 percent who don’t. 

Generation Xers and Millennials are also living at home with parents in greater percentages than their predecessors at a time when their grandparents are also moving back in with their parents in significant numbers.  Assisting elderly parents typically lasted nine years in 1900 but has extended to two decades today, making institutionalized care too much of a burden for many families.  Between 2000 and 2007, the number of individuals over age 65 living with their adult children increased 50 percent.  As a result, the American family is growing more multi-generational at a time when teenagers are more pro-family than in the past.  And most of this is happening in good old suburbia.  Regardless of how liberal entertainment elites portray the idealized good life, and regardless of how liberal media elites celebrate the European ideal of shrinking families, a large swath of Americans from boomers to Millennials seem to prefer the rather unpopular, mundane ideal of family-centric suburbanized stability.

Perhaps these trends have been buoyed by the re-establishment of marriage as society’s basic unit among America’s professional ranks.  The higher the level of income and educational attainment, the more likely a woman will marry and less likely she will divorce.  A single 30 year-old woman with a graduate degree stands a 75 percent chance of getting married, compared to a 66 percent chance for a woman of the same age with less education.  This trend reinforces what Kay Hymowitz of the Manhattan Institute has called “the Marriage Gap” in which 92 percent of children in homes earning more than $75,000 live with both parents, and fewer than 10 percent of mothers with college degrees are unmarried.  In addition, the divorce rate among college-educated couples has dropped to significant lows. As a result of these trends, marriage has become a key driver of inequality and raises larger questions about the sources of poverty, but at a basic level, the trends suggest that marriage has re-emerged as a central pillar of the idealized American life to which we encourage children to aspire. 

And while the highest marriage rates exist among professionals, Americans of all stripes are generally marriage-prone.  Eighty to 90 percent of Americans will marry, even if after a period of cohabitation, which is well above other advanced nations. While the evidence is mixed on whether cohabitation leads to higher levels of divorce after marriage, what is undeniably strong in America is the attractiveness of the married life among all groups of people.

Meanwhile, married couples with children are recovering a kind of preindustrial life, minus the disease and physical hardship, in which the family is the locus of vocational activity rather than the other way around.  In 2006 the home-based workforce had doubled twice as fast as in the previous decade, enabled mainly by telecommuting. By 2015, more people will be working from home than taking public transit.  This trend has been accelerating over the past two decades.  The Census Bureau reports that the number of people working from home between 1990 and 2000 increased by 23 percent, much faster than the growth of the overall labor market, and continues to grow.  According to the International Telework Association, roughly 20 million workers telecommute at least once each month in the United States, and a fifth of them nearly every day.  As energy costs, traffic, and the constraints of growth become more stubborn, telecommuting and decentralized work environments will increase.

This trend back to the working homestead is complemented by another movement Kotkin doesn’t address: new forms of education that are far more family-centric than a generation ago.  The homeschooling and charter school movements, together with other educational innovations such as for-profit schools, have demonstrated the level and intensity of demand in America for parent-driven educational environments.  Families now have more than “choice” in education; they have “choices.”  They can reclaim their children’s education if they desire – and they are doing just that.  Between 1999 and 2007, the number of homeschooled students in the United States grew by 74 percent. The status quo in education will continue to erode in the face of an increasingly confident and empowered nation of parents, even if it takes another generation.

In many ways the nation is moving in a direction much different than that favoured by the coastal elites.  Families, localism, and a kind of suburban preindustrial workplace – in all their mundane glory – are on the rise in America. The policies that support these trends – and the politicians who craft them – will likely dominate the domestic landscape for years to come.

Ryan Streeter is Senior Fellow with the London-based Legatum Institute.

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