moving target

Demographics works slowly enough in its ways that we can lose track of the profound work it does.

The evening's drama on the political stage, the Iowa Caucus, can serve as a wake up call. Households, the bedrock of all things consumer economics, are different than they were.

Here's a look from the Census at its snapshot of the Iowa electorate in a nutshell. For each of Iowa's "selected characteristics of voting-age population," you can see a grey bar of comparison with the broader voting-age population of the United States as a nation. From this little glimpse, you can see that Iowa's 1% slice of the broader U.S. electorate is a tad older, a fair amount whiter, slightly more well-off, and a little less educated than the nation.

U.S. Census, Iowa electorate, selected characteristics of the voting-age population

Now, here, take a look at population projections from Pew Research, and imagine what happens to both the Iowa and the national electorate as demographics forges its way forward, re-sculpting America's household landscape from what it is to what it will be.

projected household changes, by race and ethnicity, over time, from Pew Research

Before our kids' kids are grown, American society, culture, values, preferences, attitudes, and behaviors will ripple out from households that are different.

And they're different now.

Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies senior research fellow George Masnick reminds us as much in his spotlight on the work of historian and demographer Steven Ruggles, entitled “Patriarchy, Power, and Pay: The Transformation of American Families, 1800-2015.”

What Masnick's essay does mostly is to highlight biases and fallacies that sway most of our capacity to see what's hiding in plain sight before us. That American households are different. For example, it's an illusion, of sorts, to say that multigenerational homes are a new trend. In fact, what we are seeing now may be more of what is known as a dead-cat bounce of what formerly was a prevailing trend of intergenerational households.

Harvard JCHS analysis of Steven Ruggles' "Patriarchy, Power, and Pay: The Transformation of American Families, 1800–2015"

Or, what could be even more significant a take-away from Ruggles' analysis, is that the economic glue that kept generations living under the same roof for so long in the past may be re-evolving as automation, technology, and outsourcing begin to permanently alter the way households and incomes work economically. Financial necessity, in other words, may be causing a full-circle return to multi-gen households.

Slowly, slowly, slowly, work and wages and wedding trends have--in 200-plus years--re-engineered how it is that households function, how societies form and evolve, and how values of safety, prosperity, health, comfort, etc. take new shape as what's inside a household changes over time.

With University of Minnesota professor Ruggles' long-view of people patterns since the end of the agriculture-based economy and the stages of the industrial and post-industrial era in hand, we can gain a truer perspective on how profoundly different households are and operate today than even 50 years ago.

Fact is, many of us (or many of today's home building decision-makers) grew up in households five out of 10 of which were "married-with-children" families where the father worked outside the home and the mother did the work inside the home.

No one except those full of fancy operates with those images as the snapshots of a typical American household. Still, how many can fully get their minds around the fact that more than four out of five households today is not a married-with-children household.

That changes, to an astonishing degree, what goes for value. It changes the value you must create to attract, to sustain, and, ultimately, to fulfill your customers' dreams and expectations.

Sometimes, information that is not new can be surprising.