Lori Meakin, Co-Founder of Joint, asks the creative advertising industry to question its assumptions about families and consider what it can do help them thrive.

May 15th is International Day of Families, created by the UN to “promote awareness of issues relating to families and to increase the knowledge of the social, economic and demographic processes affecting families.” This got me reflecting on how far adland really understands the families we target; and what more we could be doing to help them thrive economically and socially.

Picture a family and what do you see?

Hopefully you don’t just picture a white, straight, middle class family, because a quick look at ONS data shows us that ideas of Eurocentric “housewives with kids” and “dad bringing home the bacon” that have dominated for far too long are completely out of date.

Three-quarters of mothers with dependent children are working mums. Over one in seven people in the UK identified with either the Asian, Black, Mixed or Other ethnic group (and of course averages hide regional diversity – it’s one in 2.5 in London). The numbers of same-sex couple families increased 53% in the three years to 2018. Over 300 languages are spoken in UK schools. There are millions of Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Jewish or Buddhist families alongside Christian ones, as well as those that practice no religion. And there’s huge economic diversity across families too, with households in the highest income decile having an average disposable income around eleven times higher than the bottom decile.

But ‘family’ can mean so much more than that.

Families come in all shapes and sizes

We tend to use “family” to mean a mum, dad and kids – anything from babies to teenagers – all living together in one busy but happy household. But that doesn't properly represent the real experience of family for millions of people.

The latest ONS data also tells us that lone parent families account for 15% of the 19 million families in the UK, that 11% of all UK families contain stepchildren, and that households containing multiple families have been the fastest growing type of household over the last two decades.

Over 28% of 20-34s still live with their parents, so in these family homes “the kids” aren’t kids at all. And many of the nearly 2.4 million students at uni live away from the family home in term-time but are back during the holidays.

Of course, not all family members that need to be cared for live together either. The number of people living alone in the UK increased by 8% over the last 10 years, with as many as 36% of households in Scotland being one-person only.

Families face many different kinds of pressures

There are experiences and issues that are often hard for both generations to navigate. Just take gender as one example:

According to a study by Dove, 85% of girls have distorted a selfie before they’re 13 in order to fit in with unrealistic images they see around them. TikTok and BeReal are hopefully starting to puncture the curated perfectionist pressure of Instagram for younger generations, but parents would often welcome help in supporting their daughters as they navigate these social pressures.

A recent Ofsted review found that sexual harassment has become "normalised" among school-age children, with some girls being contacted by up to eleven boys a night asking for nude images. And image based sexual abuse is flourishing at an alarming rate, from deep fakes to revenge porn sites, while many parents have no idea this is even happening, let alone how to help.

And with eating disorders growing among boys, conversations around mental health still often feeling less acceptable for boys, and the terrifying fact that suicide is the biggest killer of young men, parenting boys comes with all kinds of significant worries too.

This is, of course, only scratching the surface in one area. From the environment to social justice; gender identity to ableism; in music, gaming, NFTs and the metaverse, there are so many areas where parents may have no idea what’s going on in their kids' lives, and where advertising and communications could help make a difference.

Three commitments to families

The world is always changing, in all kinds of ways, and if we’re not actively contributing to change, we’re actively reinforcing the status quo. There is no neutral position.

So, this International Day of Families, let’s make a commitment for the year ahead to do three things:

  • Keep questioning and challenging the narrow ideas of family that we’ve inherited.
  • Work to better understand and represent the full diversity of what “family” means and what family life looks like for our consumers and audiences.
  • Seek out opportunities to develop the products, services and content that truly serve them and help families thrive in all kinds of ways.

That is being family-friendly in the best way.