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.
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.