A century ago, most parents dictated who their children socialized with, supervised their meetings with romantic companions, prevented premarital intercourse, and ensured that the young people married suitable individuals. Matters are very different today. Children are less pliant and empathic, more independent.
Such parental control was easily accomplished because young people mostly lived in the parental home before marriage. Even those who moved to a distant city mostly boarded as paying guests in other families who repressed their sexuality much the same as their parents did. This all changed when young people began independent households.
The causes of single living
There are several reasons why young people set up independent households. One of the more mundane was the fact that affordable accommodation for independent singles became available in the form of rooming houses and small apartments that burgeoned from the 1920s on and afforded freedom from family supervision (1).
Increased numbers of students in third-level education was another key factor because the majority of college students lived separately from their parents in college dorms or in apartments.
College education also raised the average age of marriage (from 21 in 1960 to 25.5 in 2000, 2) because many women delayed marriage until their education was complete and they had found a job. This increased the number of single adults who might wish to live independently.
Why independent living matters
One key aspect of independent living is the possibility of having a sex life free of parental supervision. This was facilitated for women by the widespread use of contraceptive pills from the 1970s on. Before long the vast majority of single women became sexually active outside marriage (3). This is a profound social change because it separates sexuality from marriage in a way that had never been possible previously.
In addition to being more sexually active, singles also became more open to sexual experimentation. In particular, they explored alternative unions to the in-group heterosexual unions that were the only kind of pairing allowed by parents in earlier generations. From about 1960 on, there was an exponential rise in heterosexual cohabitation, inter-ethnic-group unions, and same-sex couples (2). Before 1960, such unions almost never occurred according to census data and that is hardly surprising given that some of them were illegal.
With independent living arrangements, there was a substantial decline in marriage rates as young people remained single or cohabited (4).
The decline in marriage produces one very adverse effect in societies where independent living is taking over. That is a very rapid decline in the birth rate that is destined to bring very rapid aging of the population and a society wherein retired people ultimately outnumber the working-age population (5). This phenomenon is called “demographic winter” and the term may be suitably apocalyptic. I return to this issue in a future post.
Marriage has always been an effective way of promoting births and single women have much lower fertility than married women, even today with widespread use of contraception and small families, and even in social democracies with generous child support policies.
In summary, by getting out from under the parental thumb by living independently, young people are more likely to have a sex life, more likely to experiment with alternative unions, but less likely to yield grandchildren.
Their parents might not approve any of these changes. Yet, they are no longer in a position to do anything about it.
1. Klinenberg, E. (2012). Going solo: The extraordinary rise and surprising appeal of living alone. New York: Penguin.
2. Rosenfeld, M. J. (2007). The age of independence: Interracial unions, same-sex unions, and the changing American family. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
3. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy (2009). Special tabulations of the national survey of reproductive and contraceptive knowledge. Accesed at: http://www.transformmn.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/evangeloical-young...
4. Institute for American Values (2011). The state of our unions: Marriage in America 2011. Charlotteville, VA: University of Virginia, The National Marriage Project.
5. Cotkin, J. (2012). The rise of post-familialism. Singapore: Civil Service College. http://www.cscollege.gov.sg/Knowledge/Pages/The-Rise-of-Post-Familialism...