4/25/12 - the disappearing nuclear family

In today's excerpt - in 1950, four million adult Americans lived alone. Today, thirty-one million do:

"In 1949, the Yale anthropologist George Peter Murdock published a survey of some 250 'representative cultures' from different eras and diverse parts of the world. He reported, 'The nuclear family is a uni­versal human social grouping. Either as the sole prevailing form of the family or as the basic unit from which more complex familial forms are compounded, it exists as a distinct and strongly functional group in every known society. No exception, at least, has come to light.' ...

"During the past half century, our species has embarked on a re­markable social experiment. For the first time in human history, great numbers of people—at all ages, in all places, of every political persuasion—have begun settling down as singletons. Until recently, most of us married young and parted only at death. If death came early, we remarried quickly; if late, we moved in with family, or they with us. Now we marry later. (The Pew Research Center reports that the average age of first marriage for men and women is 'the highest ever recorded, having risen by roughly five years in the past half century.') We divorce, and stay single for years or decades. We survive our spouses, and do whatever we can to avoid moving in with others—even, perhaps especially, our children. We cycle in and out of different living arrange­ments: alone, together, together, alone. ...

"Numbers never tell the whole story, but in this case the statistics are startling. In 1950, 22 percent of American adults were single. Four million lived alone, and they accounted for 9 percent of all households. In those days, living alone was by far most common in the open, sprawl­ing Western states—Alaska, Montana, and Nevada—that attracted migrant workingmen, and it was usually a short-lived stage on the road to a more conventional domestic life.

"Today, more than 50 percent of American adults are single, and 31 million—roughly one out of every seven adults—live alone. (This fig­ure excludes the 8 million Americans who live in voluntary and non­voluntary group quarters, such as assisted living facilities, nursing homes, and prisons.) People who live alone make up 28 percent of all U.S. households, which means that they are now tied with childless couples as the most prominent residential type—more common than the nuclear family, the multigenerational family, and the roommate or group home. Surprisingly, living alone is also one of the most stable household arrangements. Over a five-year period, people who live alone are more likely to stay that way than everyone except married couples with children.

"Contemporary solo dwellers are primarily women: about 17 mil­lion, compared to 14 million men. The majority, more than 15 million, are middle-age adults between the ages of thirty-five and sixty-four. The elderly account for about 10 million of the total. Young adults be­tween eighteen and thirty-four number more than 5 million, compared to 500,000 in 1950, making them the fastest-growing segment of the solo-dwelling population.

"Unlike their predecessors, people who live alone today cluster to­gether in metropolitan areas and inhabit all regions of the country. The cities with the highest proportion of people living alone include Wash­ington, D.C., Seattle, Denver, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Chicago, Dallas, New York City, and Miami. One million people live alone in New York City, and in Manhattan, more than half of all residences are one-person dwellings."


Eric Klinenberg


Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone




Copyright 2012 by Eric Klinenberg


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