Tag Archives: predictions

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.

uncertaintimes

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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Demographic Intelligence, low bar edition

U.S. marriage rates are falling generally, so that’s the real news. And it’s important. In fact, one classic projection has the rate hitting zero at 2042. But the news shenanigans are in the prediction business.

I first wrote here about Demographic Intelligence, a profit-making venture founded by Brad Wilcox (full file). They prey on companies’ ignorance about demography and the news media’s desire to stay ahead of the story, making ridiculous claims like “99% accuracy” in their forecasts. Here’s an update.

In a Washington Post Wonkblog entry meaninglessly titled, “Why parents should stop hoping their kids will get married,” we read:

“Millennials are such a big generation, we’re going to have more people of prime marriage age in the next five years than we’ve had at any time in U.S. history. For that alone, we’d expect an uptick in marriage rates,” said Sam Sturgeon, president of Demographic Intelligence.

Setting aside the knowledge-sucking obsession with generational marketing terms, let’s just hold the president of a company with “demographic” in the title to a slightly-higher-than-complete-nonsense standard of demographic intelligence. The median age at marriage is now 28 (combining men and women). At that age there were 4.3 million people in 2013. That is actually the highest number of people ever at the median age at marriage. For example, in 1900, when the median age at marriage was 24, there were only 1.5 million people that age. Wow!

However, intelligent demographer Sturgeon said “for that alone, we’d expect an uptick in marriage rates.” And marriage rates are based on population size. that 4.3 million people at age 28 in 2013 was only 1.35% of the population, while the 1.5 million people at age 24 in 1900 was 1.96% of the population. In fact, the pattern is the opposite of what Sturgeon said: we have never had fewer people — proportionately — in the prime marrying age. Double wow!

Here is the population distribution by age from 1900 to 2013, from the IPUMS.org online table maker (try it, it’s easy!). The color coding helpfully shows where the number is above average (red) versus below average (blue). I’ve highlighted the five-year age interval that contains the median marriage age for each decade:

Microsoft PowerPoint - uspop-age-dist-marriage-age.pptx

That the marriage rate is falling — Sturgeon’s expert prediction (see below) is that it will reach an all-time low in 2016 (as it has in 16 of the last 33 years) — is in large part driven by this age composition trend.

How accurate is that forecast?

Demographic Intelligence boasts “99% accuracy” in its wedding forecasts. And these forecasts, they say, are very useful:

This unique forecast is especially valuable as the federal marriage statistics are usually released 12 to 24 months after the date to which they apply, making official data of limited usefulness to the wedding industry. Our forecast is available 24 months before weddings happen, thereby offering a tremendous value to companies that focus on weddings and ancillary businesses.

Now, I’m all in favor of wasting the wedding industry’s money, but I don’t like deceiving the public. So I have to tell you: for every year from 2001 to 2012, if you had simply used last year’s marriage rate to predict this year’s, you would have averaged 98.3% accuracy. That is the deer-in-headlights method of forecasting. In fact, the deer-in-the-headlights forecast for 2012 — that is, assuming no change from 2011 — yields an astonishing accuracy of 99.87% (see below). Not bad! I’ll sell that to you for just 98% of what Demographic Intelligence is charging (except you’re already paying for my services, so you’re welcome).

Of course, demographers like projections, and I’m no exception. It is frustrating that official marriage statistics lag “real time” so much more than other important statistics, such as the unemployment rate or the number of named storms per season. That’s why in 2013 I announced a marriage forecast contest to predict the 2012 marriage rate, and provided some trends in key variables for you to experiment with (in a spreadsheet here): Google searches for wedding invitations, bridal showers, and wedding gifts; the unemployment rate, the Index of Consumer Sentiment, and the number of women ages 20-39:

There was so little interest in my contest (go figure), that I never got around to updating the results. So here goes. We now know from official statistics that there were 2,131,000 marriages in 2012, which, for a population of 313,914,040, yields a marriage-per-1000 rate of 6.788, down from 6.797 in 2011. Using different combinations of these variables, I generated projections using linear regressions. As I noted, the no-change performed very well, at 99.87% accuracy. But the winning model was actually the one that used the Google search trends only, which predicted 2,133,647 weddings, an astonishing 99.88% accurate. If Google is not using their data to get filthy rich — oh wait.

Anyway, in this exercise I’m just predicting the next year in the series — it gets a little trickier if you want to go four years out. And demographic projections are a serious science. But this prediction business is just wasting money and confusing people.

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