SSWDs: Made in the USA

ONE of the most dramatic demographic changes that has occurred in America over the last several decades is the growth of what demographers dub SSWDs -- single, separated, widowed, and divorced people -- who constitute more than a quarter of all households. Like any demographic change, it presents both positive and unfavorable effects for the nation, with the latter sometimes perceived as the most obvious, what with single parents and children as typical victims of poverty. Yet a sizable portion of SSWDs are educated, increasingly affluent, and mobile. These individuals present American business with enormous opportunities: More than two-thirds of condominium owners are SSWDs; the restaurant business is heavily dependent on this segment of the population, to say nothing of the supermarket industry. Salad bars, single-serving pouches, and other individualized preparations abound at high-ticket prices.

Because both males and females are marrying later, at about the same age as in 1890 (26 for men, 22 for women), the supermarket industry is focusing on the single male shopper, who used to be a nonentity in its economic perspective. And yes, silverware and china companies are hawking their wares to affluent singles who want high-quality products for their abodes without the traditional marriage context.

You don't have to live in Washington or Manhattan, which have very high percentages of SSWDs, to recognize that businesses are more than ever target-marketing their products, on a national scale, to singles: Procter & Gamble, a successful company that keeps its ear to the public ground, is a good example. Its Ivory soap ads in the old days often featured babies. Because babies are loss leaders today, Ivory is now geared to the distinctive individual who wants no perfumes, no deodorants, just good, natural soap. P&G's Safeguard soap, long touted as the family soap (``the smallest bar in the house,'' as each family member used it), has been changed in recent days to give it an individual appeal. And P&G's Coast soap was initially marketed for the individual who had a difficult time getting started in the morning; that certainly wasn't a parent who had the automatic alarm clock known as a child.

The economic downside of this demographic change is that many SSWDs may find it more difficult to outdo their parents in total net worth. Rather than marrying early, staying married, putting a little money down on a house, having children, then selling the house for a bigger one, SSWDs will likely take longer to invest. To be sure, they are increasingly buying houses and apartments that, not surprisingly, are smaller than their parents'.

But builders have risen to the challenge: Modern housing abounds in that supreme illustration of individualism and privacy -- namely, a large number of bathrooms -- and in gimmicks that make houses look larger. From that perspective, the world of the SSWDs is not a stage, but a land of mirrors.

Historian Thomas V. DiBacco's ``Made in the USA: The Story of Business'' will be published by Harper & Row in February.

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