Indicators that loyalty among family members is up in America

Even though we supposedly live in a disconnected and fragmented age, there are some indicators that suggest Americans feel more loyal toward their families than in the past:

“There’s been a social and economic change that’s actually made us more dependent on family loyalties,” says Stephanie Coontz, author of “Marriage, A History” (Penguin).

“You don’t know your neighbors. It would be crazy to be loyal to your employer in the same way you used to be because your employer’s not going to be loyal to you. All of those things have simultaneously made us want more loyalty — long for more loyalty — and try, I think, to have more loyalty in our personal lives.”

Loyalty itself is difficult to measure, but likely indicators such as family closeness appear to be on the rise. A 2010 Pew Research Center study found that 40 percent of Americans say their family life is closer now than when they were growing up, and only 14 percent say it is less close. Another Pew study showed that the percentage of adults who talked with a parent every day rose to 42 percent in 2005 from 32 percent in 1989.

The family loyalty picture is complex, with Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, saying that though couples who marry today are less likely to get divorced than couples that married in the 1970s, more people are forgoing marriage or delaying it.

The article suggests several reasons why people would be feeling more loyal toward their family today: rapid economic and social change, different expectations about family life, and people are entering intimate relationships more cautiously.

There could also be a few other factors at work:

1. I wonder if there is some social desirability bias in answering a question about family closeness. What adult today would say they are doing a worse job in creating family closeness than their parents did? Also, there is a memory issue here: how many current adults can accurately remember or assess the closeness of their family when they were younger? Their current family status is much more immediate.

2. I’m surprised this wasn’t mentioned in the article: it is relatively easier to communicate in families with the advent of email, cell phones, and text messages. However, I wonder if these easier methods of connection mean that people are confusing connected with closeness or if they are indeed one and the same.

Even if loyalty isn’t truly up compared to the “golden era” decades ago (at least in our popular culture we have this image of an era where the nuclear family never let each other down), the perception that loyalty is more important or stronger matters. This is an expectation that many people will bring to relationships and affect their actions.

(A side note: Wilcox and Coontz get interviewed for a ridiculous number of news stories about family life and marriage.)

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