The Future of Family Lies in the Hands of Single People

Family has never had so many meanings, and single people are creating them.

Posted Mar 03, 2016

The most sentimentalized version of family in the US is the nuclear family – mom, dad, and the kids. Pundits and political candidates and leaders hold up the nuclear family as the standard against all other families are judged. It is, they seem to suggest, the norm – the way most of us are living today.

But are we really? See if you can answer these two questions: (1) Of all households in the US, what percentage are comprised of nuclear families? (2) What percentage include just one person?

Recently, I was asked to guest lecture in a graduate class studying family processes. I posed those two questions to the 10 students. Only three knew that there are actually more one-person households, 28%, than nuclear family households, 19%. Only one realized that the number of nuclear family households had slipped below 20%.

Two profoundly important demographic realities (among many other factors) have contributed to the demise of the nuclear family. First, there are nearly as many adults, 18 and older, who are not married as married. Second, Americans now spend more years of their adult lives not married than married. Add to that the growing number of people who never have children and suddenly, both components of nuclear family living – a spouse and children – are missing.

These trends have been gaining steam for many years and show few signs of stopping. But even if the trends did slow or even begin to reverse, there would still be many millions of adults not living in nuclear family households.

Rather than retreating from family, though, they are redefining and recreating it. For example, in unprecedented numbers, single people are raising children. Their households of mom and the kids, or dad and the kids, are every bit a family as the nuclear families.

Also growing is an old-fashioned way of living – with multiple generations, all under the same roof. Way too many moralists still make a sport of bashing single parents and their kids, so no one predicted the results of a study comparing adolescents raised in 10 different kinds of households. The children of parents who had always been single and who were raised in multigenerational households did the best – yes, even better than the adolescents raised in nuclear family households. They were less likely to drink or smoke, more likely to graduate from high school, and more likely to go to college.

Other single people who want to raise kids but do not want to do so on their own find innovative or even radical ways of doing so. Pryor, one of the single women I interviewed for How We Live Now, asked twelve friends and family members to be Godparents to her daughter Lucy. The Godparents did not live in the same home as Pryor and Lucy, but they had long been an important part of the Pryor's life and now they were an important part of Lucy's, too. Most were unrelated biologically, but they were family.

Still other single people want to have another person just as committed to raising children as they are. They want a parenting partner – but not a romantic partner. And now there are multiple websites in multiple countries that help them find others who want the same thing. The parents are not spouses or romantic couples of any variety, but they are committed to raising children together. They, too, are family.

But what about the many millions of single people who do not have children? They are creating their own kinds of families, too. We're used to the idea of young people all living together under the same roof, having raucous parties and lots of fun. Thanks to the wildly popular Golden Girls TV series, we also realize that groups of older people sometimes live together, too – not just as roommates but as life mates. They are people who maintain the house and the household, and share their lives. They are family.

But the youngest and the oldest adults are not the only people coming together to share a home and a life. People are doing that all across the lifespan. In what must seem like an unlikely example, How We Live Now includes the story of four heterosexual men who got a place together right after college, and nearly two decades later, were still living together. Even after the rent for their first place skyrocketed and they had to move out anyway, they decided to find a new place to share rather than go their separate ways. They are family.

But what about the 35 million people (only counting those in the US) who are living on their own, with no spouse, no children, no other biological relatives, no friends, and no roommates? Set aside the ones who are living in their own places but in intentional communities, such as cohousing communities. Aren't they alone?

To the contrary. Single people, including those living alone, are among the most connected people in the nation. They have more friends and they are more attentive to their friends. They also forge and nurture ties with neighbors and coworkers. They keep siblings together more often than married people do, and they do far more to stay in touch with, and offer substantial help to, their aging parents. They are putting together their own circles of people who matter to them – families of choice.

For the just-published issue of Nautilus, I expanded on these themes in my article, "Families of Choice Are Remaking America." The tag line adds, "Through their networks of friends, singles are strengthening society's social bonds." Also, here's a Q & A that accompanies the main article. (Nautilus is a fairly new publication but it has already won a whole slew of national magazine awards. The print version of the magazine will be available in a few weeks. You will probably be able to find it at your local Whole Foods. Go figure.)

[Notes. (1) For more about how Americans and others are redefining home and family, see How We Live Now. (2) For more about the ways in which single people are especially connected and caring, click here. (3) For more about just about every aspect of single life except trying to become unsingle, click here.]

Credit: Photo by Richard Peat (CC-BY-2.0)