Soccer mom in decline
Married, middle-class but working suburban moms whose primary concern is how to enrich their children while they are away at work are declining in numbers, in influence and even as a key swing vote. New preliminary 2008 census figures show that the percentage of households with their own kids under 18 has hit a record low of 30.7%. This is in sharp contrast to the situation in 1960, when nearly a majority (48.9%) of households had such children.
This is indicative not just of a decline in soccer moms, but in kids and population growth in general. Women are marrying later, developing their careers more, and having fewer children. And surprisingly, among those households with kids, there is a countertrend of more moms opting to become full-time moms, a trend that is also likely accelerated by the severe recession and job losses in the economy. In 1994, only 19.8% of married-couple families with children younger than 15 had a stay-at-home mom; last year that figure was almost 24%.
A household with kids and a working mom not only isn’t the norm today, it isn’t even close to the norm. Two-thirds of all households have no children in them at all – but most of those households now have something else – the internet – as the new force that can bring them together around their interests and needs.
Moreover, many of the trappings of the soccer-mom way of life are giving way to a new urbanism that was long predicted but had never before materialized. Suburban and exurban growth itself has slowed to a crawl and instead the new areas of growth are in our cities. More people are looking to walk to work and shopping, giving up the idea of the house and the lawn and instead opting for the maintenance-free lifestyle of condos. Cities with over a million people (outside of New Orleans) have been growing now at a rate of twice their previous growth rate. Minivans hit their high watermark in 2000, selling 1.3 million while sales have dropped down to 441,156 as of October 1, 2009. They have been replaced by SUVs, new crossovers, and a resurgence in just plain old cars. Even the surge in kids’ soccer has peaked, with growth slowing to a trickle.
And on TV fewer top-rated shows are about family life, as more and more focus on crime. Cop shows – a window into gritty urban life – dominate the top 10 list with four out of 10 in the week of September 21, 2009. ABC’s new comedy “Modern Family” – a mockumentary of new family life –didn’t make it to the top 10.
In the 1990s, policy makers turned their attention to keeping kids safe and occupied after school, and they are still hard at work on some of those problems – looking at the nutritional value of snacks, for instance, or President Obama moving to ensure every child healthcare coverage. But the new, smaller policies getting more attention today are in a different vein – distracted driving, privacy, hybrid car and taxi legislation, and universal broadband. More and more policies focus on our own everyday lives instead of the lives of our children.
Of course, the commercial and housing implications of these changes are enormous. More households with fewer rooms will become the norm – and in upscale homes, more emphasis on the kitchen, the home office, and exercise areas. Fast food companies will have to become even more aggressive in growing new customer groups alongside families with kids. One financial publication this week featured the new empty nester “baby boomer consumer” in a cover story as the latest trend worth a marketer’s time.
But these demographic changes are not about economics, except at the margins. They are essentially about people’s basic lifestyle choices. We are going from everything being based around our kids to everything being based around education, work and the emerging new adult lifestyles. People in Europe — and increasingly here in the U.S. — are choosing more often than not to get married, not to have kids and to live a life that is more about, well, themselves.
Life expectancy has also played a major role in the shift – when it was 46 years in 1900, most people lived their whole lives as part of a family – going from growing up in one to having one rather quickly. Today a child born here may live to 100 – with less than half of his or her life spent as part of a nuclear family. Even if birth rates were booming again, households with kids would still shrink as a function of the total population, just because of increased life expectancy.
As a result, soccer moms as the leaders of a new lifestyle are being supplanted by new groups at both ends of the age spectrum. Among youth, the growth of ethnic groups has been much as demographers predicted: new Latino and other communities are quickly taking root and creating far greater diversity than ever before. Seniors are living second lives of renewed consumerism. And in the last election, it was moderate upscale men who were a key swing vote for Obama. Each of these are candidates to become the new group defining our culture – the next “Soccer Mom.”
So when you look at the numbers, the heyday of the Soccer Mom is passing. They will continue to exert a measurable influence, but in a world of evolving microtrends, they are on the decline. And on the rise are single, urban workaholics, Internet-junkie empty nesters, and new immigrants taking root.