One-third of Americans aren’t able to name all of their grandparents, according to the genealogy website Ancestry.com. That proportion seems very, very high—it represents more than 100 million people. Can that estimate really be right?
Ancestry filled in some details when I inquired. The figure comes from a survey the company recently commissioned that polled 2,000 American adults who were “statistically representative” of the country’s overall population. In the survey, respondents were asked whether they knew the first names of their grandparents, and were not given any indication that they were being asked exclusively about their biological grandparents.
When I asked Ancestry for possible explanations of its finding, the company noted that many family trees are passed down orally, which might make familial details prone to being misremembered or forgotten. It also pointed out that a lot of kids grow up calling their grandparents nicknames or just “Grandma” or “Grandpa”—which could make it more likely that they’d blank when asked to provide their grandparents’ actual first names.
In an attempt to better understand what else might be going on, I consulted some researchers who study family-related demographic patterns. Because these experts didn’t have access to the details of the survey’s methodology, their theories aren’t definitive explanations of Ancestry’s finding. But they are informed guesses, and together they capture the multifarious forms that American families take in the 21st century.