Tag Archives: diversity

Thought leader for a day: Families in uncertain times

I have contributed to the Canvas8 2016 Expert Outlook report. I am not sure what this is, but it has to do with experts, and the future, and being a thought leader. Thirty-nine experts in 13 areas contributed their thoughts. My area was Home, and my Thought #29 was Uncertain Times.


The Home section is here, the slideshow version is here, and the full report in PDF is here.

The text of my thought came from a very interesting phone conversation I had with editor Jo Allison, who then wrote it up very nicely. Here is the text she produced from our call (I added some links for supplemental reading or factual support). I wasn’t sure where to start, but I was pretty sure any conversation about the future should start with plastics.

Philip N. Cohen is a sociologist and demographer at the University of Maryland. He’s also the author of The Family: Diversity, Inequality and Social Change.

There’s an increase in family plasticity. In the US especially, there’s a big increase in re-marriage, marriage later in life after people already have children, with one or both partners having children from a previous relationship. Cohabitation has been increasing for a few decades, with couples living together after one and both of them have been married or divorced, or have children with somebody else. These things create a dynamic where the rules are unclear and people have to negotiate their own family boundaries and relationships.

We’ve also seen a lot of people having children and getting married later in life. But it’s not just that people do them at later ages, it’s that the ages at which people do these things are spreading out. Everybody used to get married at 22, but now it’s spread out – some people get married at 22, while some get married at 52.

The major life markers – completing education, having children, living together, marrying – as the periods of time get elongated, these things are more interwoven, instead of sequenced rigidly. Where there used to be firm expectations for how you ordered your life in terms of these events, now the order of those things is more flexible. All that plays into the same theme of uncertainty and people feeling like there are no rules to tell them exactly how they should do things.

There’s also uncertainty around family obligations. It used to be that adult children supported their older parents; maybe they inherited the family home, but they were in the support role with their elderly parents. Now, the relationship is more complex than that because there are more young adults who have had trouble establishing themselves, their careers and their families, so they’re still dependent on their parents.

We have more choices and we have more freedom in how we organise and live our family lives. Same-sex marriage is the latest formal recognition of that. But it’s been coming with divorce, with remarriage, adoption. The downside is that we’re more at sea when it comes to making those decisions and people really need to justify their decisions with regards to family life. In the US in the 50s, we basically had universal marriage – over 90% of people were married before 25, so you didn’t have to justify why you were doing what you were doing. Now we do.

That’s why we see so much attention on celebrities’ and leaders’ personal lives – because people want to hold them up and say, ‘I’m like that person’. They need anchor points to reference their own decisions. So people might say, ‘I’m thinking of adoption and look, Angelina Jolie did it, I like her.’ Celebrities give us models to chose from. It’s harder to be a conformist but people need something to define their behaviour, positively or negatively.

Parents are increasingly worried about how their kids are going to do in an unequal world. We saw this with the scandal that came out with Baby Einstein. It had a product that seemed to be a no-brainer; ‘wow this is great for infants, they’re going to turn out to be smart if they watch these little videos’. It turns out there was no science behind it. People were so mad, because they just want to do the right thing. From breastfeeding to limiting screen time, parents are worried about how their kids are going to turn out.

There’s big controversy over the gendering of toys, too. It was interesting that Target said it wasn’t going to have separate aisles for boys and girls. I think that’s very healthy. Children have an inclination to rock the boat, but as soon as it appears that they’re going to be penalised, it can be harsh. So it’s a very positive thing when they have more choices and variety. Particularly for boys. That’s why it’s been harder for men to become secretaries, even as women’s roles have changed. Because men have higher status, the penalties for gender non-conformity are more harsh, especially for adolescent boys.


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Diversity is the new normal

I have new briefing paper out today with the Council on Contemporary Families, titled “Family Diversity is the New Normal for America’s Children.” I’ll post news links soon. In the meantime:

I’m happy to provide high quality graphics.

Let me know what you think!

Reports and commentary:


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Sexual minority counts

One of the big happenings at the Population Association of American (PAA) conference, just completed, was news of progress toward collecting better data on sexual diversity.

Photo by Philip Cohen from Flickr Creative Commons

Photo of PAA 2014 by Philip Cohen from Flickr Creative Commons

Call it weakness if you like, but in this area I am prone to viewing modernity as a march of progress from a dark past toward a half-full glass of bright future, with popular politics driving widening notions of human rights, motivating legal reforms, compelling the adoption of state bureaucracies to progressive social reality, and gradually incorporating us into a new world order more or less of our own creation.

That last part – about the bureaucracies incorporating the public – might not be the most complicated, but it is still pretty thorny. (And from here till the next subhead it gets technical.)

Good news bad news

The good news is that we have great new data collections coming along. Virginia Cain from the National Center for Health Statistics reported on their new sexual orientation question for the National Health Interview Survey, the largest federal health survey (the paper doesn’t seem to be available yet). This is already yielding important data on health disparities for sexual minorities, which is vital for policy responses to inequality.

Tim Vizard from the UK Office of National Statistics also reported on his agency’s new sexual identity question, which has been tested for several years on a few hundred thousand people each year. The latest numbers show 1.5% of adults self-identifying as lesbian, gay, or bisexual. They get these low numbers because they ask a very simple, narrow question, only on sexual identity rather than sexual attraction or sexual behavior (see other studies for the range of estimates).* Importantly, less than 4% of the UK respondents are refusing to answer, and the question is not affecting overall response rates – two big fears in the statistical agencies that appear to be receding with these and other results. Here’s how they ask it (semi-confidentially, so that in theory a husband and wife taking the survey together could both tell the interviewer they’re gay without either knowing what the other said):


The other good news is that the U.S. Census Bureau is making great strides (which I first praised here), on several tracks. First, they are working on the same-sex married couple data from the American Community Survey (ACS). At present they only release aggregate estimates of same-sex couples, differentiating between those that are married versus cohabiting (explained here).

A big reason we don’t have more data is the bad news: In another paper (just an abstract is posted, but you can ask the authors for a copy), Census analysts Daphne Lofquist and Jamie Lewis reported on their investigation into possible errors in the same-sex couple data the ACS has collected.

The background is that in a 2011 paper (linked here) Census analysts showed that a lot of seemingly same-sex couples were actually different-sex couples in which someone’s sex was miscoded.** If even a tiny percentage of different-sex couples make a mistake on the form – say, 1-in-1000 – then you would roughly double the number of same-sex couples. And they do. The paper used name-gender associations to reveal that, for example, in Texas 29% of supposedly male-male couples had one partner with a name that was used by women 95% of the time in that state – probably women accidentally marked as male.

But that 95% cutoff is a conservative estimate of the error. In the new analysis Lofquist and Lewis went further and checked same-sex couples against their Social Security records to see what sex they had recorded there. The result was shocking: 72.5% of the same-sex couples had a member whose sex didn’t match the Social Security record. Yes, some people change their sex/gender, and some people’s Social Security Records are wrong, but not that many. The much more likely culprit is simply a tiny number of straight people mismarking the sex box (there are some other technical possibilities, too).

The great thing about just asking people their marital status and sex is that you can count gay and lesbian couples without changing anything about the form (such as asking about sexual identity or orientation). That’s what all the people want who think I’m backward for worrying about couple-sex gender terminology. “C’mon!” they say, “Why do you have to label marriage as homogamous or heterogamous – just call it marriage!” Maybe someday, but at the moment that approach is producing an accuracy-crushing level of noise in the same-sex couple data.

Fortunately, Census is also moving forward with other improvements to fix this. The most important change is probably to the basic relationship question, which will soon look something like this, with couples labeled “opposite-sex” or “same-sex,” and the gender-neutral “spouse” added beside “husband/wife.” This will allow Census to check those couples that are reported as married to see if their same/opposite relationship identification matches what they reported for their sexes:


If we end up with a question like that, which seems most likely (the Census testing and development is quite far along), then we should be able to much more reliably identify same-sex couples (both married and cohabiting).

We’ll get used to this

That proposed new relationship question has 17 categories. That’s a long way from these six, in 1960 (the whole series of Census forms is here):


That goes to show you that family diversity is a state of collective mind as well as a structural reality. Building bureaucratic bins into which we pour data describing the various aspects of our lives is one of the defining elements of modern life. Eventually, I am pretty sure people will become disciplined by the new bureaucratic reality, and identities will calcify around checkboxes. That’s life under the modern state. (Even most haters, once they realize the data is being collected, will want to answer the questions accurately so they don’t get counted as gay – although, just as a few people refuse to answer race questions, there will be holdouts.)

* Identifying transgender people is much more complicated and difficult. The number of required questions and categories increases as the size of the groups in question grows smaller. This is feasible for smaller, more targeted surveys, but not in the immediate cards for the big ones (see Gary Gates’s presentation at PAA for more on this).

** I’m pretty sure Gary Gates was the first person to identify this problem, but can’t remember which paper it was in.


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All opposed? (to family change)

Over on his Iranian Redneck blog, Darren Sherkat has an interesting series of posts on religion and attitudes toward same-sex marriage, using new data from the 2012 General Social Survey (fundamentalism, denominations, young Republicans 2x, race, and the 2004-2012 trend) — all extensions of his academic work on the subject (2x). All of this shows that, in addition to political conservatism, religious fundamentalists and people in sectarian Christian denominations are (or were) driving opposition to marriage rights.

But same-sex marriage (homogamy) is only one aspect of growing family diversity. I was reminded of a survey the Pew Research Center did with Time in 2010, called “The Changing American Family,” which asked a question I like:

These days there seems to be a growing variety in the types of family arrangements that people live in. Overall, do you think this is a good thing, a bad thing, or don’t you think it makes a difference?

I’m not sure what to make of the people who think it’s “good” versus those who think it makes “no difference.” But the people who think family diversity is a “bad thing” — 28% of the population — might be the definition of family conservatives. So who are they (or, who were they in 2010)? Think of them as the sky-is-falling set.

Couple looking up

The good people at Pew offer a data download, which (once you get it out of SPSS format) is pretty easy to use. Using religion, political affiliation, education, race/ethnicity, and some other demographic variables, I made a simple regression model that explained 19% of the variance in “bad thing” attitude. Rather than show the regression table, here are the bivariate relationships between “bad thing” and those characteristics (I also labeled the blocks with how much of the variance they independently explained).

bad-thingAs with Sherkat’s findings for same-sex marriage, the most important predictors of opposition to family diversity are religion and political affiliation – but religion is by far the strongest. For example, people who don’t think family diversity is bad were about 3-times more likely to never attend religious services. The absolute majority – 54% of people who chose “bad thing” – described themselves as born again Christians, and a quarter of them attend church more than once per week. The counter-stereotypical findings are:

  • Latinos are less likely to oppose family diversity than anyone else.
  • Those with high school education or less are the least likely to say “bad thing.” (In the multivariate model, college graduates also choose “bad thing” less, making the some-college crowd the most conservative.)

This is not a scientific study, but an illustrative exploration. I don’t know enough about the data collection to know how well these data could withstand peer review, or whether this could be done with a more rigorous dataset such as the General Social Survey. But I like the question, so figured I’d share the results.


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Data visualizations: Is U.S. society becoming more diverse?

Trying to summarize a few historical trends for the last half century (because what else is there to do?), I thought of framing them in terms of diversity.

Diversity is often an unsatisfying concept, used to describe hierarchical inequality as mere difference. But inequality is a form of diversity — a kind of difference. And further, not all social diversity is inequality. When people belong to categories and the categories are not ranked hierarchically (or you’re not interested in the ranking for whatever reason), the concept of diversity is useful.

There are various ways of constructing a diversity index, but I use the one sometimes called the Blau index, which is easy to calculate and has a nice interpretation: the probability that two randomly selected individuals are from different groups.

Example: Religion

Take religion. According to the 2001 census of India, this was the religious breakdown of the population:

RELIGION Number Proportion
Hindus 827,578,868 .805
Muslims 138,188,240 .134
Christians 24,080,016 .023
Sikhs 19,215,730 .019
Buddhists 7,955,207 .008
Jains 4,225,053 .004
Others 6,639,626 .006
Religion not stated 727,588 .001
Sum of squared proportions .667
Diversity .333

Diversity is calculated by summing the squares of the proportions in each category, and subtracting the sum from 1. So in India in 2001, if you picked two people at random, you had a 1/3 chance of getting people with different religions (as measured by the census).

Is .33 a lot of religious diversity? Not really, it turns out. I was surprised to read on the cover of this book by a Harvard professor that the United States is “the world’s most religiously diverse nation.” When I flipped through the book, though, I was disappointed to see it doesn’t actually talk much about other countries, and does not seem to offer the systematic comparison necessary to make such a claim.

With our diversity index, it’s not hard to compare religious diversity across 52 countries using data from World Values Survey, with this result:

wvs-religious-diversityThe U.S. is quite diverse — .66 — but a number of countries rank higher.

Of course, the categories are important in this endeavor. For example, Turkey and Morocco are both 99% “Muslim.” So is Iraq, but in Iraq that population is divided between people who identify as Muslim, Shia and Sunni, so Iraq is much more diverse. You get the same effect by dividing up the Christians in the U.S., for example.

Increasing U.S. diversity

Anyway, back to describing the last half century in the U.S. On four important measures I’ve got easy-to-identify increasing diversity. What do you think of these (with apologies for the default Microsoft color schemes):




The last one is a little tricky. It’s common to report that the median age at marriage has increased since the 1950s (having fallen before the 1950s). But I realized it’s not just the average increasing, but the dispersion: More people marrying at different ages. So the experience of marriage is not just shifting rightward on the age distribution, but spreading out. Here’s another view of the same data:


These are corrected (5/11/2013) from the first version of this post. I have now calculated these using the this report from the National Center for Health Statistics for 1960, and comparing it with the 2011 American Community Survey for those married in the previous year.

I have complained before that using the 1950s or thereabouts as a benchmark is misleading because it was an unusual period, marked by high conformity, especially with regard to family matters. But it is still the case that since then diversity on a number of important measures has increased. Over the period of several generations, in important ways the people we randomly encounter are more likely to be different from ourselves (and each other).


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