How to Compare the Modern American Families of the 21st Century


Over the second half of the 20th century, American families underwent significant changes in composition and lifestyle. According to 2010 research by the Pew Research Center, these changes correlated with new definitions of the American family. In growing numbers, families moved from rural areas to urban centers or suburbs, and more women joined the workforce. Family size became smaller and more children were born to unmarried parents. As a result of these trends, American families of the 21st century are highly diverse, and can be compared by looking at a number of social and economic indicators.

  • Examine trends in marriage. On average, rates of marriage have decreased in the American population, though significant differences exist between groups depending on religious affiliation, ethnic background and income level. Draw comparisons between families based on marital status, and consider rates of divorce and unmarried cohabitation. The U.S. Census Bureau compiles extensive statistics on marriage, divorce and remarriage, and is an excellent source of information for establishing comparisons based on marital status.

  • Compare family size. While population-level trends demonstrate a decrease in family size, the number of children in a household varies by region and cultural background. Consider which population groups are having fewer children, and also examine trends in delayed childbirth. Increasingly, women are choosing to postpone reproduction until later in life, however, this trend is more common among women of higher socioeconomic status. Data from 2004 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that older age at first birth is associated with higher levels of educational attainment for mothers. Draw comparisons between younger and older parents to identify differences in educational level and income.

  • Compare household structures. Examine differences between nuclear families -- those consisting of solely parents and children -- and multi-generational households. Consider how child-rearing responsibilities are arranged, as well as which figures are regarded as family members. With the rise of single mothers, friends or distant relatives often take on new familial roles in providing the mother and child with support.

  • Consider immigration status. Draw comparisons between families based on immigration status and the countries from which they originally came. Immigration status can affect the area in which a family settles, the type of economic resources it has, and the degree to which parents and children are socialized into American culture. The Department of Homeland Security provides statistical and descriptive information on current and historic immigration patterns.

  • Examine religious affiliation. Religion influences family values and composition, as well as potentially affects age at marriage and family size. Some religions advocate that members marry only those of like faith, and others uphold different values with regard to gender, education and fertility planning. The Association of Religion Data Archives provides demographic information on hundreds of religious denominations in the United States, and allows researchers to draw comparisons between different religious groups based on income, education, immigration status, and political practices.

  • Tie it all together. Visit the U.S. Census Bureau's American FactFinder website and enter in the zip code of a region that interests you. Compare the findings with the statistics of two to three other zip codes. Consider how income, family size, household composition, and religion are connected, and how the descriptive characteristics of families differ between regions.

Tips & Warnings

  • You don't have to limit yourself to resources mentioned in this article. There are many resources put out by governmental and non-governmental research organizations that can help you tailor your research to a specific element of how life for American families has changed.

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