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The New Family Ecosystem

Accompanying any societal revolution is a fundamental change in the structure of the family that reflects the market's new dynamics. Like the industrial age, the digital age is ushering in a profound change in society that will affect everything, from marketing and media to language and socially acceptable norms.

In the industrial age, traditional family values were uprooted by the shift from farming to working in a factory. Society today is going through a similar evolution with change all around us taking place in sometimes subtle ways.

Perhaps the biggest driver of change is the onslaught of media, which has shortened the average American's sleep cycle by some two hours since the 1920s to 6.8 hours each night, according to the National Institutes of Health. The introduction of the Web some 10 years ago only propelled the trend by introducing the concept of media on demand, which is clearly beginning to enslave many consumers with its addictive 24/7 sites. The average U.S. online consumer now devotes some 1.18 hours daily to the Internet, more than half of the time lost to sleep.

But the Internet is not the only medium playing havoc with family life. Videogames, introduced in the mid-70s, have become a family mainstay with 67% of households with children owning one. Families have had to adapt to their teenage boys, who devote about 15% of time spent with any form of media to videogames, virtually tied with Internet and radio use. The Internet and videogames have made families watching television together such a rare occasion that media execs have coined a term for it, "co-viewing."

While watching television together is on the way out, watching television and surfing the Internet is on the upswing. This "multi-media tasking" trend now affects some 35% of U.S. consumers who report watching TV while simultaneously going online, according to BIG Research. Keep in mind that this figure will jump markedly as notebooks become the dominant computer platform, something I believe will happen before the end of the decade, ushering a concept I've dubbed the "tummy Internet."

The additional demands placed on family life by a plethora of media and entertainment choices are amplified by the fact that the average U.S. adult worked 49 hours each week in 2003, up eight hours from 1973, largely at the expense of leisure time. That seachange shift has produced the remarkable phenomenon of being "busy," which 59% of Americans complained about, according to a 1996 NBC News/The Wall Street Journal poll.

To busy consumers the chief goal of life has become saving time, with some polls suggesting that time has become more valuable than money. When a Redbook magazine online poll asked more than 1,000 married women if they would rather have more time to cook or more money to afford takeout, 52% said they wanted more time.

For women, in particular, who are fueling the two-income household trend that means not only juggling work but household chores as well, which has greatly impacted the ability of moms to educate children. As a result, manners are slipping, as evidenced by the growing incidences of public brawls, like the now infamous Indiana Pacers basketball mêlée. One could simply dismiss the incident as a spontaneous outburst of anger, but it comes just months after a baseball game featuring a chair-tossing incident. And that sport is mired in a controversy involving steroids that has officials in an uproar.

Fans, however, don't seem to care much that their sports heroes are using prohibited drugs, because such time-honored family values as honesty and integrity have taken a backseat to the spectacle of watching bulked-up gladiators spar for their equally outsized salaries.

But taboo behavior is just part of the changing family scene. Waiting in the wings is an equally seismic shift to single households that is the driving force behind such phenomena as online dating and singles travel. Like the rest of the world, the U.S. is slowly becoming a nation of singles. Married-couple households have declined from 80% in the 50s to just 51% today. Meanwhile, the number of singles 18-plus has surged to 86 million. In 2000, for the first time, households with people living alone outnumbered households with couples and children, 26% to 24%, the latter figure down sharply from 1970's 40%.

The changing family picture will only accelerate as the Internet begins to exert its true influence. In the U.K., online dating sites are being blamed for a divorce rate that has risen three straight years. While that interpretation could be flawed, Thailand has already recorded its first divorce via SMS text message.

These trends are bound to lead to a new family ecosystem, one that relies greatly on the Internet and mobile phone-based systems to provide support for eroding family values. The explosive growth of Friendster, which now numbers more than 13 million members, shows that electronic support mediums resonate among consumers looking to replace traditional means creating new friendships.

The implications of all these changes for marketers and media are equally clearcut. Consumers are beginning to push back on the number of marketing messages they want to receive. In 2003, for the first time ever, consumers spent more money on media than advertisers did. Paying careful attention to the new family ecosystem will be paramount for survival in this bold new age.

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