Two pieces of news provide a flicker of hope amid the doom and gloom.
June 15--Since the recession, the convergence of economic and social trends has led to some interesting family dynamics.
As the economy slowed, other things seemed to slow down as well: People buying homes later in life, or not at all; getting married later in life, having children later.
The baby boomer generation of now-aging parents is hosting the boomerang generation of college graduates returning to the nest. Money and health issues are forcing the grandparents to move in too.
Blended families, with one step-parent, have been common for years. So have single-parent households. Less common, but becoming more so, are same-sex couples who are increasingly being granted the same financial and legal status of traditional married couples -- joint property ownership and tax filings, joint parental rights and obligations, joint control over health care directives.
So some five years after the recession, as same-sex marriage becomes legal in Minnesota and other states, how do these modern families compare financially with traditional families? This was the central question to data published recently by Allianz Life Insurance Co. of North America, based in Golden Valley.
The upshot? Forget the relative security and minor tribulations of TV's "Modern Family." In the real world, both modern and traditional families face real challenges.
"We are concerned because 'middle class' is usually associated with financial security," said Katie Libbe, Allianz Life's vice president of consumer insights. "But in our research, 47 percent of traditional families and 57 percent of modern families -- the nontraditional family structure -- said 'I'm struggling, it's hard to make ends meet,' or 'I just feel poor.'
"That kind of caught us off guard, and we said something's going on there ... It is surprising to find that so many people consider themselves struggling."
Indeed, while 85 percent of traditional families called themselves middle class, 41 percent of the same income group said they live paycheck-to-paycheck.
A few definitions here: Middle class refers to a household income of $50,000 a year or greater, regardless of family size, and the survey was limited to those making at least that much.
Traditional families are considered two parents of opposite sex, with at least one child under 21 living at home. Modern families include blended families with a step-child in the household; multigenerational families with at least three generations living together; boomerang families with at least one adult child who has returned home. Other cohorts considered were single parents, same-sex couples and older parents with younger children. Same-sex couples were the only group not required to have kids for the survey.
Allianz surveyed 4,500 respondents, including 500 from each cohort.
In a recent interview, Libbe made a few other observations about the survey and the state of families today.
Is the timing the survey related to social patterns, such as legalization of same-sex marriage, or the end of the recession?
"We've done studies on women, the Women Money Power survey, since 2006, and most recently in that study for 2013, we did ask some questions about women living with women, same sex couples, but it would only be women. And we starting seeing interesting patterns there about that type of structure; they tended to use advisers more, tended to have more in savings, to have more household income.
"And so then we sat down and thought about where we wanted to go next in terms of studying consumer patterns.
"We know a little bit about the single-female parent, but maybe we want to look at all single parents, including men; same with same-sex couples. When we got our research company on board, we talked about wanting to do a study where we talked about modern family structures, and what has that done for savings and the financial industry."
What did the results tell you about the way people use, spend and save money, and the way they deal with financial issues?
"On the positive side, we've found that families are starting to talk more about money with their children. Modern families seem to be talking more. They have a less-formal structure with their kids, prefer to be friends with their kids, more so than traditional families, and they talk about everything, finance included.
"Same-sex couples tend to use financial professionals, more so than any of the other cohorts, even more than traditional families. When we dug into it, that was because they're not afforded many of the things that traditional couples take for granted, like joint filing a tax return, ways to own real estate, social security. When you think about it, these people probably hired their financial advisers years ago, before they even imagined that the state would legalize same-sex marriage.
"I think these families that say they're middle class and say they're struggling, they do not want to sacrifice the short term memories and experiences that are important, like taking an annual vacation or making sure that their kids are able to play soccer, or hockey, so they're funding those things maybe at the expense of their long term retirement goals."
What can be done with the information in the survey, that so many people think they're struggling, from a financial planning standpoint?
"A lot of advisers may still see their jobs as managing a portfolio for a household and that kind of ignores the mechanics of what's going on behind the scenes in the family: Is there a parent that's going to someday be your responsibility? That's going to affect what they recommend.
"So you hear this term, 'holistic financial planning.' I think understanding the family dynamics is essential.
"There's also a role for employers to provide more financial literacy programs, education, because we know almost half the population is not going hire an adviser, so should we be limiting the access to good information?
"We know that if you are financially challenged and stressed out about money, as an employee you're not going to be as productive as you could be."
The see more about the survey, go to http://bit.ly/1gxahz0.
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