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."

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.

Flip-flopping statistics

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."

But other forces play an even larger role, sociologists say. For example, the graying of the population means an increasing share of Americans, especially the baby boomers, are moving out of child-rearing years. That means fewer nuclear families. And, to the extent that older people get divorced or lose a spouse, advancing years create more single households.

Thus one the nation's grayest states, North Dakota, sports the highest share of single-adult households (29.3 percent). Meanwhile, Utah, at the other end of the spectrum, boasts relatively few home-alone households (17.8 percent) and nearly twice as great a share of nuclear households (35.0 percent), the highest in the nation.

Faith as a factor

Religion may also play a role. With three-quarters of Utah's population Mormon, that religion's emphasis on marriage and family probably accounts for some of the bias toward traditional families, says Thomas Kontuly, a geographer at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. By contrast Rhode Island, the nation's most Roman Catholic state and one of its most urbanized, sports the largest deficit between traditional nuclear and home-alone households (21.0 percent to 28.6 percent, respectively).

One reason: Catholic couples tend to marry later than Protestant ones, according to Professor Goldscheider at Brown. And when couples delay marriage, they tend to have fewer children, demographers point out.

"It's not so much that [Americans] are becoming a nation of loners," says Freya Sonenstein, director of the Population Studies Center at the Urban Institute in Washington. "They're delaying getting married, and they're delaying having children."

In many ways, demographers add, it's the nuclear family of the 1950s and 1960s that stands out as the historical anomaly. "The 1950s were this very strange concentrated period when people thought they were returning to normalcy," Goldscheider says. "Once they got it, it seems it really wasn't what they wanted. Today's average age of marriage (about 25 years for women and 27 years for men) is far closer to what prevailed in 1890 than in 1950.

Meanwhile, Americans are also living longer and healthier, allowing even more independent living. "As we've lengthened the lives we live as adults, we've contracted the years we spend as parents," says Suzanne Bianchi, a demographer at the University of Maryland in College Park, Md.

This shift to "home alone" is new. In 1790, the nation's first census showed only 3.7 percent of Americans living alone. By 1890, the share had fallen to 3.6 percent and as late as 1940 stood at 7.1 percent - less than a third of today's rate. But demographers don't know whether the shift will continue.

For one thing, the aging baby boom generation may be skewing the numbers. For another, the huge influx of Hispanics may shift the balance back to what it was the 1950s.

In some states with large Hispanic populations, such as New Jersey, the gap between nuclear families and home-alone households barely budged during the 1990s. In Texas, the percentage of home-alone households actually dropped slightly. And California, with the largest number of Hispanics, defied all trends and saw its share of married with children households actually increase nearly half a percentage point to 26.0 percent.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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