Rise of 'home alone' crowd may alter US civic life
AT the beginning of the 1990s, the United States was still a "Married ... With Children" nation. By the end of the decade, the balance had shifted to "Home Alone."Skip to next paragraph
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The trend away from the traditional nuclear family toward a more singles-oriented society holds broad implications for American politics and culture.
In the short term, it could lead to more concerns about healthcare and less support for local schools. Longer term, some experts worry about what will happen to civic society if Americans spend a smaller share of their lives living with others.
"I worry a little bit that we've forgotten how," says Frances Goldscheider, a demographer and sociologist at Brown University in Providence, R.I.
New census numbers show how dramatic the shift has become. For the first time in history, more adult Americans are living alone than there are nuclear families.
This is not to say families have become extinct: Their numbers actually grew during the decade.
Instead, the number of young singles, divorced Americans, and widowed seniors grew faster, nudging Ozzie and Harriet and the Bundys (of TV's "Married ... With Children" fame) off the center stage of American life.
The trend represents one of the major forces behind the dwindling of US civic life, argues Robert Putnam, a public policy professor at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. "More and more of us are living alone, and conventional avenues to civic involvement are not well-designed for single and childless people," he writes.
Professor Putnam says that as a result of this and other forces, such as two-career families and television, Americans today sign 30 percent fewer petitions than they did in the mid-1970s, attend less than half as many club meetings, and entertain friends at home far less frequently.
Nationally, the two groups flip-flopped positions in the past decade. In 1990, 25.6 percent of all households contained traditional nuclear families (married couples living with children under 18 and no others), while the share of "home alone" households stood at 24.6 percent. By 2000, the number of nuclear families had grown slightly but not as rapidly as other groups, leaving them with a smaller 23.5 percent of all households. Meanwhile, the share of home-alone households had climbed to 25.8 percent.
Most states followed a similar pattern, but not all, according to census data released this week. In nine states, including Nevada, Florida, and Massachusetts, the balance had tipped from traditional nuclear families to "home alone" households by 1990. In eight others, including Georgia, New Jersey, and Hawaii, the flip-flop hasn't happened.
Generally speaking, the trend toward living alone reflects the nation's increasing wealth during the 1990s. Many Americans chose "home alone" because they could afford it.
"Living alone probably does make it a bit harder to be connected up with others - and in that sense, we should give this trend pause," says Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "But there's a strong preference among unmarried Americans of all ages to be involved with their families but not live with them. That's their ideal."