Americans, with good reason, increasingly distrust the big, impersonal forces that loom over their lives: Wall Street, federal bureaucracy, Congress and big corporations. But the one thing they still trust is that most basic expression of our mammalian essence: the family.
Family ties dominate our economic life far more than commonly believed. Despite the power of public companies, family businesses control roughly 50% of the country's gross domestic product, according to the research firm Gaebler.com. Some 35% of the Fortune 500 are family businesses, but so too are the vast majority of smaller firms. Family companies represent 60% of the nation's employment and almost 80% of all new jobs.
And despite the glowering about impersonal corporate agriculture and the overall decline in the number of farms since the 1950s, almost 96% of the 2.2 million remaining farms are family-owned. Even among the largest 2% of farms, 84% are family-owned. The recent surge in smaller, specialized farming may actually increase this percentage in the future.
Family life also often determines the economic success of individuals--something widely understood since the controversial 1965 Moynihan Report linked poverty among African-Americans to the decline of intact family units. Today more than half of black children live in households with a single mother, a number that has doubled since the 1960s, and they are much more likely to live in poverty than non-blacks. When you consider intact African-American families the so-called "racial gap" diminishes markedly.
The confluence between upward mobility and strong family networks remains extraordinary not only among African-Americans but among all groups. Only 6% of married-couple families live in poverty, and most of them, like previous generations of newcomers, are likely to climb out of that state. "Families," suggests Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman, "are the major source of inequality in American social and economic life."
The critical importance of family runs against the mindset of pundits, corporate marketers and planners. Starting with Vance Packard's 1972 bestseller A Nation of Strangers, Americans have been sold the notion of a more atomized, highly individualized future. Similar alarms have been issued both on the left, from the late Jane Jacobs, and by conservative observers, like Francis Fukuyama and William Bennett.
Yet despite these predictions, our mammalian instinct to trust family first has remained very strong. Some 90% of Americans, notes social historian Stephanie Coontz, consider their parental relations close.
This back-to-family trend has been building for at least a decade. For example, over the past 30 years the percentage of households with more than one generation of adults has grown and now stands at the highest levels since the mid-1950s. Meanwhile the once irrepressible growth of single-family households has begun to slow down, and has even dropped among those over 65. Meanwhile the numbers of adults aged 25 to 39 living with their parents jumped 32% between 2000 and 2008, before the full impact of the recession; the increase in single-centric Manhattan, notes The New York Times' Sam Roberts, was nearly 40%.
Unlike the typically "nuclear" families of the mid-20th century, the current crop, much like earlier generations of American families, tend to be more "blended." In its contemporary form this includes same-sex partners, uncles, aunts, grandparents and stepparents.
Today childrearing extends beyond the biological parents and is often shared by divorced parents, their new spouses and other family members. Grandparents and other relatives help provide care for roughly half of all preschoolers, something that has not changed significantly over time and is unlikely to do so in the future. This is even true in the Obama White House, where Marian Robinson, the First Lady's mother, has moved in to help raise the couple's two children.
Of course, some still celebrate the purported demise of the family unit to support various feminist, green or dense urbanist agendas. They point out with enthusiasm that barely one in five households consists of a married couple with children living at home, even though these households account for more than one-third of the total population ,according to the Census. Yet they miss one critical point: Parents usually continue to care for and be deeply involved with their offspring even after they leave the nest.
When people move somewhere, for instance, they tend not to do so because it is closer to their favorite jazz club or a
These nesting patterns are being further buttressed by hard times. People who might have struck out on their own are staying close to home--if not at home.
Last year Pew reported that some 10% of people under 35 moved back in with their parents. Pressed by the bad economy, the number of adults 18 to 29 who lived alone dropped from nearly 8% in 2007 to 7.3%. People are less likely to form new households in tough times.
Similarly if people are looking to start a business, they are more likely to do so within the family. In a time of constricted credit from banks, Pew also reports a growing dependence on family members for loan. In bad times, who else can you trust besides your kin?
Of course, the very affluent can afford to have it all--easy credit, a country house and ease of travel between their "places." But for the middle and working classes, family ties often trump all other considerations. Real estate agent Judy Markowitz, once explained to me that being close to parents remained the primary motivation for young people staying in neighborhoods like Bayside or Middle Village in Queens, N.Y. "In Manhattan they have nannies," she explained. "In Queens we have grandparents."
These basic trends are not likely to be reversed once the economy recovers. For one thing, our increasingly non-white populations remain very committed to inter-generational living; over 20% of African-Americans, Asians and Latino households--compared with 13% of whites--live in such households. Many minorities, particularly immigrants, also often tend to own small family businesses, which rely on credit and labor from extended family networks.
And then we have to consider the new generation. The millennials, note researchers Morley Winograd and Michael Hais, are very family-oriented. Indeed three-quarters of 13-to-24-year-olds, according to one 2007 survey, consider time spent with family the greatest source of their own happiness, rating it even higher than time spent with friends or a significant other. More than 80% think getting married will make them happy, and some 77% say they definitely or probably will want children.
Anyone looking into the future of the country’s economy cannot do so without considering the continued importance of the family. Americans' most important decisions--where to move, what to buy, whether to have children--will continue to revolve largely around the one institution most can still trust: the family.
This article originally appeared in Forbes.com.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is author of The City: A Global History. His newest book is The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, released in February, 2010.