In “Modern Family” — the sitcom — prosperity seems natural and money is never a problem. Real modern families aren’t quite so lucky.
A new survey of several types of families common today finds that traditional clans — those with two heterosexual parents and no one besides their own kids living at home — still enjoy the most financial stability, even though they’ve become more of a rarity. In 1970, 40% of families were the Ozzie and Harriett variety (kids: they were a bland, affable suburban couple with two replica sons). Today just 20% of families have that traditional structure, and the non-traditional is becoming increasingly accepted in American culture. The latest Gallup poll, in fact, finds that a record 55% of Americans support gay marriage. And the rise in unconventional families has happened at the same time that middle-class fortunes have faded and more people feel like they’re falling behind.
The real-life struggles of modern families reflect broader economic strains in America. “Some of the underlying reasons could be unplanned dependents moving back into the home, such as an older son or daughter,” Katie Libbe of Allianz, which conducted the study, says in the video above. “Certainly in a blended family you have a lot of that unplanned dependence.”
Here’s how different types of families measure up, according to the Allianz data:
One startling finding is that a large percentage of families — of all types — consider themselves middle class but also live paycheck-to-paycheck. “Being middle class doesn’t mean being financially secure these days,” Libbe says. Another way to look at that paradox: Some people who consider themselves middle class aren’t, really.
Unconventional families are more likely to suffer the various financial hardships that have become all too familiar these days. The percentage that have declared bankruptcy, collected unemployment insurance and unexpectedly lost their main source of income are all higher than the share of traditional families that have done so. That makes it harder for most modern families to save money for things such as a home purchase or retirement fund, adding to their financial fragility.
Blended and multigenerational families are struggling the most. That’s probably because more people living in the home raises the cost of everything from putting food on the table to financing cell-phone plans to doing laundry. If aging parents or underemployed twentysomethings move in, the added expense may outweigh any additional income. And disruptions such as divorce can quickly drain a savings account. Still, researchers noticed that families remain willing to spend on fulfilling experiences, such as going to Disney World or taking a cruise. Carpe diem.
Single-parent families score better in the Allianz data than conventional wisdom may suggest, perhaps because the $50,000 income cutoff excludes poorer families with deeper financial woes. And some modern families are making it. Couples who deliberately put off having kids while they focus on building careers and saving money tend to accomplish those goals, the Allianz data suggest. And families headed by same-sex parents are the one group doing better than traditional families.
As the overall economy improves, some of the strains on modern families should ease. More young adults will find jobs that pay well enough for them to say farewell to their parents and start their own households. And fewer families will endure the sting of layoffs and lost income. Widespread prosperity, however, may remain the stuff of TV fiction.
Rick Newman’s latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.