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.)

McMansions are too costly in terms of money and relationships

In another article about McMansions in Australia (and I have been seeing more and more of these  – perhaps due to the recent news that the country has the largest new homes on average), one writer suggests McMansions cost too much and have a negative impact on relationships:

Australians live in the world’s biggest homes but new research shows our trend to upsize our living space is reversing. The average size of new houses being built in this country is getting smaller as people start to realise that living in a McMansion does not make sense. While the financial implications of owning a large home have surely been considered, there are other costs that are not as obvious…

The reasons are obvious- it costs too much. Far from being energy efficient, the financial burden that comes with a bigger pad can weigh too heavily on a household already struggling to keep up with the rising cost of living. There are bigger gas and power bills and mortgage repayments not to mention the hassle of having to spend time and money maintaining and keeping the whole thing clean … no wonder we are thinking again.

Another problem of the larger, have-it-all home is that we have less need to leave it to meet our daily needs. Social interaction is being replaced by home-based activity for our convenience. It is easier to get on the treadmill, ‘chat’ to someone on Facebook, play tennis on the wii and shop online instead of getting out into our communities.

There is no substitute for real communication and the lack of it can affect our sense of well-being. Mental health issues such as depression and the feeling of isolation that many people experience is the reason some programs are being developed, specifically aiming to get people out of the house, talking to others and active in their communities. ‘The Shed’ for men and ‘R U OK’ Day are a couple of examples.

The financial costs of McMansions are clear, particularly if you include costs beyond the price of the home and consider the impact on other areas like cars, roads, infrastructure, and filling/furnishing a larger home.

The relational impact of McMansions has also been covered by others, particularly since they seem to encourage more private lives. But, my mind jumped to the next step in the argument illustrated in this article: how small would houses need to be in order to encourage interaction even among family members? If a McMansion is roughly 3,000-6,000 square feet, it seems like it would be fairly easy for family members to avoid each other. But, if a home is 2,000 square feet, would families necessarily interact more? Perhaps if we went back to the era of Levittown sized homes, around 900 square feet, this could induce some interaction.

But even in smaller homes, there are other factors at work. At the end of the article, the writer suggests that perhaps the real problem isn’t the size of the home:

I am conscious of creating an environment where communication is encouraged and valued so we know what’s going on in each other’s lives. There are no computers, TVs or other electronic entertainment in the bedrooms. Our living space is used for meals, games, entertainment, homework and handstands. It’s a bit cluttered but it’s homely and there’s always someone to talk to.

Technology could play a role as could cultural ideas about the need for “time alone.”

In the end, a smaller home probably increases the number of times people have to run into each other but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they will have deeper, more meaningful relationships. There are larger issues at work here beyond the number of square feet a home has or whether the home has a porch close to the street.

Japan’s difficulty in tracking people over 100 years old

Japan is known for having a high life expectancy: according to 2008 public data, the world’s life expectancy is 69, the US’s is 78, and Japan’s is 83. With this higher life expectancy, Japan has a large number of centenarians, people who are over 100 years old. But there is a problem: the Japanese government has had problems keeping track of this population group.

More than 230,000 Japanese citizens listed in government records as at least 100 years old can’t be found and may have died long ago, according to a government survey released Friday.

In August, the Justice Ministry ordered a review of records that found about 77,000 people who would be at least 120, and 884 people who would be 150 or older. The head count followed a flurry of reports about how elderly people are falling through the cracks in Japan as its population ages rapidly and family ties weaken.

In all, the survey of family registration records nationwide found that 234,354 centenarians were still listed as alive, but their whereabouts were unknown, the ministry said.

While this could be chalked up as simply a bureaucratic problem, the news story suggests these findings line up with concerns about how the elderly are treated in Japan. This then could be a larger issue that concerns social and family relationships and the fabric of Japanese society.