When you are reinventing the book on parenting, the result is more psychological work, and there’s a lot more anxiety.

While researching our latest report, Meet the New Family, we asked consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow for her perspective on how changing family structures are affecting consumers, from today’s young parents to the growing population of solo dwellers. Yarrow, author of Decoding the New Consumer Mind: How and Why We Shop and Buy, also discussed how people are finding and forming meaningful connections and some of the new rules in place for marketers.

How is family changing, and what does this mean for consumers’ psychology?

There are fewer societal expectations of what a family should be, and that has a positive implication in that people can select a structure that makes the most sense for them. This is where you see single parenting, same-sex parenting, more collective friends parenting, more involvement from grandparents and so forth.

There is a struggle people have with that shift as well. On the one hand it gives people a lot of freedom, but on the other hand, that freedom arouses a great deal of anxiety, and there’s more responsibility. When you are reinventing the book on parenting, the result is more psychological work, and there’s a lot more anxiety associated with it.

Could there be an area in your life more anxiety-provoking than whether or not you’re a good parent? Your responsibility to your kids is huge, and so when you are doing things differently, you’re constantly having to evaluate how it’s working, using other people’s feedback to test out how they’re doing it. Some of the ways I see parents dealing with that is through social comparison on social media. But when you have problems and real concerns, you know, social media is just not as helpful as real people to talk to. One of the ways this anxiety plays out in the marketplace is through more social research and a closer examination of the products they’ll choose to help them parent. Brand values are more important than ever.

We found that more people than ever are choosing to live solo. Why is this?

People marry later and live longer, so there is more kid-free time in life today. Once kids are out of the equation, people do connect in different ways. People look for a sense of belonging and family in their communities. A lot of that is happening in online communities or facilitated through online communities, but also through shared hobbies, pets and interests. And there are simply more and more ways for people to connect like that.

If you’re living alone, there’s a strong imperative to connect and feel belonging with other people. Now that we have the option of living by ourselves, there’s going to be a massive need to feel that sense of connection, belonging, obligation, responsibility to others. Obligation and responsibility sound like negative words, but they give life purpose. They’re essential to happy human functioning. It’s part of why pets have an elevated stature in society today.

A lot of times the panacea is their online communities, which—as a psychologist, I can say without doubt—will not ultimately serve the purpose of creating that sense of connection and family. It’s great at facilitating in-person relationships but not the best for building relationships. But it’s easy, it’s a fallback, and it’s kind of effortless, so it’s increasingly taking the place of deeper connections.

That’s created a need, and marketers probably would be smart to assist with helping people to get connected. Your brand or product can bring people together and make them feel connected, either through their love of brands [or] by identifying with something in particular—a particular brand, product or usage of something, or by creating either online or in-person events. Brands have always had that ability to bond people to each other. With more single people out there, there’s an even greater ability to do that.

We’re also seeing more Boomers living alone. Why is this happening?

People have so much more power and choice in how they choose to live their lives. At one time, being a divorcee had implications. Today I think there’s much more acceptance of a wide variety of lifestyles. A good thing about being older when you’re living alone is that you have more confidence at that point. So there’s less anxiety about how to restructure your life than younger people have. The other thing is, when you get older, you typically have a stronger social circle. And that’s the foundation for happy singledom: a social network.

How is technology shaping the way solo dwellers connect with and forge families?

People do have the opportunity to stay connected with a much wider variety of family. [Technology] is a fairly surface way of connecting. People can use Skype, they can send each other videos, and all of this is a really wonderful way to feel like you still know and understand and have a relationship with people you might not otherwise see. For long distance, and, especially if you’re looking at families that have moved. But there’s really a big difference between what you can offer people online and what you can offer them in person. There’s an intimacy and an empathy and a genuine connection that you don’t get online.

The farther away you get from connection, the less empathic nurturing you get from those relationships. That’s why there’s a lot of room to create ways for people to connect through your brands or through promotions in your brand. The antidote to our digital friendships [is] that people want a sense that brands are human and real. They really balk at any sense of corporate-ness. Part of that is because of a distrust in business and corporations, but part of it too is that we just want a more human brand experience, because we’re craving humanity in our lives.

How do Millennials feel about the emergence of new family structures?

Younger Americans in particular are genuinely anti “ism”: sexism, racism, genderism, ageism. This puts a whole set of new rules in place for marketers: They have to be really inclusive. They need to spend more time with and get into the mindset of the new generation of consumers. Important for everyone, but especially younger consumers, are marketing communications that reflect inclusiveness.

You don’t want to do it to the point where it overshadows your message. It has to look really natural, which is how it is to this generation of consumers—natural. There’s an acceptance of all different kinds of lifestyles, and that needs to be reflected.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

There’s a growing sense that men in particular are not represented fairly, that there are stereotypes around men as parents that are really inaccurate. There’s a great craving—[among] all generations, this isn’t just a Gen Y thing—to see real people in marketing communications. Celebrating the normal person is celebrating our real lives, which people are moving towards: making human interactions, and advertising in particular, more genuine.