America is no longer a nation of nuclear families

The Golden Girls were ahead of their time.
The Golden Girls were ahead of their time.
Image: AP
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Mom, dad, and two kids, in a home of their own—in the US, it is still the most sentimentalized way of living. But its frequency as a way American families live has long been waning. In 1970, more than 40% of households were comprised of nuclear families; today, that figure is not even 20%.

With the age of first marriage edging ever upward, divorce remaining commonplace, women outliving men, and more people staying single for life, Americans are now spending more years of their adult lives unmarried than married. More adults of all marital statues are not raising kids at all. Among those who do have children, family size is shrinking.

What does home look like for more than 100 million Americans who are single (with and without kids) or couples with no children?

To find out, I traveled the country, asking people to let me into their homes and their lives. I also collected stories from the media and my own online survey, examined government reports and scholarly writings, then told the stories of these not-so-nuclear families in my forthcoming book, How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century.

A new kind of home

Sociologist Eric Klinenberg has already offered one important answer to the question of how people are living today when he documented the extraordinary rise of people living alone. I found that solo dwellers come in many different varieties, from those whose homes are next door to their friends’ houses, to those who are living in collaborative communities such as cohousing neighborhoods or ecovillages, to couples who are committed to their relationship but are equally committed to their own homes.

I discovered that single parents and seniors have been particularly innovative in the ways they live. At CoAbode, for example, single mothers can find other single mothers interested in sharing a home and family life. About 70,000 single moms from the US and Canada are registered on the site. In RV parks and mobile home communities, and in those pocket neighborhoods in which houses or apartments are clustered around a shared open space, seniors are finding privacy within their own places and companionship just outside their front doors.

I also learned that although nuclear-family living has been declining, another version of family living is increasing, and has been since 1980: multigenerational households. We like to think of those households as old-fashioned, and in fact, in the decades surrounding the turn of the 20th century, most Americans who could live in multigenerational households chose to do so. Most, though, did not have the opportunities we have now, because shorter lifespans meant that the lives of different generations did not overlap for long. A 20-year-old living in 1900 was less likely to have a living mother than a 20-year-old in 2000 was to have a living grandmother.

Today, more than 20% of Asians, Blacks, and Hispanics live in multigenerational households, compared to 13% of Whites. Historically, though, that’s a recent phenomenon. Between 1880 and 1940, a greater percentage of White than non-White households included several generations.

Another alternative way of living is also on the rise—sharing a home with people who are not relatives. In 1950, households comprised of people unrelated to each other hardly registered on the Census. They accounted for only 1.1% of all households. For nearly two decades, that number barely budged. Then slowly, those living arrangements became more commonplace. By the turn of the 21st century, 6.5 million households (6.1%) were home to people who were totally unrelated to each other.

Stereotypically, the people who share a house with those who are not kin are very young adults. Their roommate selection is haphazard, their places are a mess, and they are just passing through on their way to economically more flush times and more grown up ways of living. Those households are still part of the landscape, but 21st century versions of shared homes include people whose ages, economic circumstances, and reasons for coming together range far beyond the stereotypes. The new home-sharers bring a seriousness of commitment to their living arrangements. They are grown-ups, and this is their grown up way of living.

From Golden Girls to college roommates you can’t quit

Among the most devoted house-sharers are today’s seniors, who have seen too many of their own elders end up in institutions, and have vowed to avoid that fate themselves. Women, especially, fantasize about finding a place to share with friends as they grow older. When AARP asked 1,200 women, 45 and older, about the appeal of that way of living, close to 90% said the best part would be the companionship.

That’s what Marianne Kilkenny was seeking when she moved into a two-story Colonial in the charming southern town of Asheville, North Carolina. There she would share stories, meals, and household chores, and host celebrations and social events with three other women and one man, all of whom she had already met and would soon became friends. Sixty-two when I met her, and divorced with no children, Marianne had in mind a model of what she wanted her shared housing experience to be. It was the fictional foursome that has been inspiring real people for decades—the Golden Girls.

At the other end of the age spectrum, the youngest adults are living together, too, and they are not just marking time. After graduating from New York University, four men who were close friends decided to share a loft in Chelsea. Fourteen years later, their rent doubled and they had to move on, but instead of going their separate ways, they recommitted to living with each other in two stories of a concrete building they found in Queens. With a few girlfriends among them and no kids, they are all approaching 40, and feel anything but alone. “We are really close, and care about each other deeply,” one of the men told the New York Times.

In Seattle, a group of artists, ages 19 through 50, longed for an affordable place to share. They set their dreamy sights on an old hotel, and with help from the city, got it converted into a place with 21 living spaces of different sizes. They enjoy potlucks at home and organize work parties to keep the place in shape. They also like to head out together to the nearby markets and cultural events.

A few of the shared households I visited had at their helms women with a mission. “Marice,” for instance, moved to the United States from China with her teenage son in 2007. All the unfamiliarity—the customs, the language, the land—was daunting. Eventually, though, she found her way and wanted to help others do the same. So she rented a big house and welcomed as housemates a single man from Mexico and a couple from Iran, in addition to a few Americans.

More than just a housing crunch

It is easy to attribute the rise in house-sharing to difficult economic times, and that is a significant factor. Yet there is far more to this trend than financial necessity. The growth in house-sharing among unrelated people began long before the recent recession.

In the UK, scholars noticed the rise in house-sharing among unrelated adults and initiated the Single Young Adults and Shared Household Living project. They focused on singles ranging from 18- to 35-years-old, and were surprised to find that, even among the older house-sharers in their study, more than half had professional and managerial jobs and could have afforded places of their own.

For some, escape from the constraints of a steep rent or mortgage frees them to pursue what they value most. One of the four single men in Queens, for example, had a dreary office job. By sharing housing costs with three others, he was able to ditch the grind and pursue the work he loves, as a personal trainer. Marianne and her housemates appreciate the aesthetics of a home and a neighborhood none could afford on their own.

By living with friends rather than family, contemporary home-sharers are reimagining the meaning of relationships. No longer is it a given that the people at the center of our lives will be a spouse or children or relatives of any sort. Surely, for many, family still is paramount. But now, that is more of a choice, and some choose to put their friends first.

No matter how much home sharers value closeness and togetherness, though, they covet something very different, too, and sometimes in equal measure—their own privacy and autonomy. The members of these households typically share a kitchen, a living room, and maybe a rooftop or a back yard, but they nearly all have rooms or suites of their own. These new shared homes are not the communes of yore, in which nearly everything—sometimes even clothing—was shared.

Neglected structures such as old hotels and concrete fortresses are getting a second chance at a new life when groups of friends take one look at them and see a home. Builders are inspired to think beyond the standard single-family home when they field requests for houses with multiple master suites and separate entrances. Policy makers are realizing that they need to reconsider their zoning regulations, now that those five 60-somethings in their beautifully maintained home and not just rowdy college students are among the unrelated people sharing spaces.

What we will all realize, from the innovative spirit of home-sharers and solo dwellers and single parents and seniors and couples who live apart from each other and people who create their own villages, is that there is no one best way to live. To a greater extent than ever before, we get to design our own lives and our own lifepaces.