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Family Today: A Study of U.S. Families

Families are seen as filling "extremely important" or "very important "roles both in U.S. society today and in individuals’ own lives, according to this new study by AARP. 

The study, titled “Family Today: A Study of U.S. Families”, provides a unique look at the changing nature of families in the United States today, the importance individuals place on them, and the various ways they provide comfort to individuals in these challenging times.

Key findings include:

  • The Importance of Family—Large majorities of adults 50+ view family as an important part of their lives, with nine in ten saying family is extremely or very important to them.  Notably, the high importance placed on family is consistent across demographic groups and among people without spouses or children. While both men and women alike say family plays an important role in their lives (87% and 93%), women seem to hold this view more strongly (70% of women vs. 58% of men saying family fills an extremely important role).

  • More Might Be Better—Most are satisfied with the size of their family, with 78% saying their family is just the right size, but among those who are not satisfied, the vast majority wishes their family were bigger. Additionally, a look at satisfaction in relationships suggests that having more family may lead to higher satisfaction in family relationships. This seems especially true when it comes to grandchildren: people with grandchildren are more satisfied with various relationships than those without (82% vs. 75% satisfied with family relationships overall).

  • The Role of “Connectors” in Families—Most (88%) families have a “connector,” most often (81%) a woman, who serves as the “glue” that keeps families together, and many adults report that they (31%) or their spouses (15%) serve as the connectors in their families. Having a connector in one’s family seems to make a difference, making people feel more in touch with their family members. Additionally, people with connectors in their families tend to view family as more important (92% vs. 78%) and tend to be more satisfied with family relationships (82% vs. 67%).

  • Making Families Stronger—Respondents were asked to name the one thing they would do if they could wave a “magic wand” and make their family stronger. The question was open-ended in format, and the responses were varied, touching on a number of themes. The three most common themes relate to wanting family members to live closer to one another (17%), wanting to improve their own or a family member’s financial/employment situation (13%), and wanting to improve family relationships (12%).

  • Improving Family Relationships—When asked to name the one family member with whom they would most like to improve their relationship, spouses/partners, children, and siblings top the list. Most people are generally satisfied with their relationships with these family members, but they want these relationships to be even better. The areas that could use the most improvement are their sex life with their spouses/partners (22% dissatisfied), the frequency with which they see their children (22% dissatisfied), and the frequency with which they spend holidays with their siblings (39% dissatisfied).

  • Distance & Families—The families of the 50+ are spread out with children, grandchildren, and siblings living far away. Most parents (71%) have a child living within an hour’s drive of them, but many do not have any children living this close. Many have children living five or more hours away. There are similar patterns with grandchildren. When it comes to siblings, most (60%) do not have any siblings within an hour’s drive. More than half (55%) have siblings living five or more hours away. One in three (33%) says distance has had a negative effect on relationships with family. Additionally, distance seems related to less satisfaction in family relationships, especially for those with a child or sibling living five or more hours away. To close the gap that distance fosters in feeling close, Skype is equal to phone even though it is a relatively new medium.

AARP commissioned Lake Research Partners to conduct a two-phase study of U.S. families. The first phase consisted of focus groups and “mini-ethnographies” across the country in the fall of 2011. With insights gained from the initial research phase, and utilizing Knowledge Networks’ Online Panel, a large national survey was developed and fielded online among 2,261 respondents ages 50 and older. For more information about this study, please contact Teresa A. Keenan, Ph.D., at 202-434-6274.