The number of people who are single, live alone, or have no children has been growing for decades. Rather than living in isolation, they are creating families of their own choosing, unconstrained by considerations of blood or marriage or adoption.
The Changing Face of the Nation
The rise of single people in the United States, and in many other countries around the world, is one of the most significant demographic phenomena in the past half-century.
In 1970, in the U.S., just 28% of adults 18 and older were not married (Saluter & Lagaila, 1998); now nearly half (45%) are unmarried (U.S. Census Bureau, 2017). Adults in the U.S. spend more of their adult lives not married than married (DePaulo, 2006).
Related changes include the growing number of women who do not have children (U.S. Census Bureau, 2016), the decreasing family size of those who do, and the declining number of families comprised of married parents and their children (Vespa et al., 2013). Although nuclear families are still sentimentalized, they no longer have a numerical place of prominence. In the U.S., fewer than one-fifth of households are nuclear family households. There are more households comprised of people living alone (Vespa et al., 2013).
The growing number of single people, especially those who live alone, has stirred panic in the hearts of pundits and even some scholars. They worry that the U.S. is becoming a nation of isolates. Even people who do marry and have children can be cause for concern, as, for example, when they lose their spouse to death or divorce. Their grown children sometimes live far away, and even if they are nearby, they can be preoccupied with their own lives.
Who will be their family?
Beyond Blood, Marriage, and Adoption: Families of Choice
For a long time, “family” seemed to have one meaning. For adults, “family” meant nuclear family, the one you “started” when you married and had children. In fact, until the year 2001, the Journal of Marriage and Family was called the Journal of Marriage and the Family. For such a small word, the word “the” carried a lot of misleading meaning, and it had to go.
According to the dated definition, single people with no children don’t have families of their own. They don’t even fit into the kinds of families that inspired the renaming of the journal, such as single-parent families, step-families, blended families, and families headed by same-sex parents.
But rather than remaining on the outskirts of society, isolated and alone, single people with no children are creating families of their own (DePaulo, 2015, 2017). They are not constrained by considerations of blood or marriage or adoption as they decide who matters to them. Friends, neighbors, mentors, colleagues, and lovers, as well as relatives other than a spouse or offspring, are all eligible to be accorded special status, akin to nuclear kin. In my life, for example, my biological niece and nephews are not the only children who have called me “Auntie Bella.”
As Forrest Gump or the scholars of “doing” family might say, family is what family does. Today’s adults do not need a spouse or children in order to care for people who cannot care for themselves or receive such care themselves. They do not need to create nuclear families of their own to socialize the young; to exchange emotional, practical, or material support; or to have people with whom they share experiences and create a sense of continuity and identity.
How Single People “Do” Family
The results of research on single people and the important people in their lives have shattered stereotypes.
Singles, in many important ways, are more connected to other people than are married people. Research in the U.S. showed that single people have more friends than married people do (Gillespie et al, 2015). A study in the Netherlands compared six different groups – single people not dating; single people who were dating; married or cohabiting people with no children, or with young children, or with older children; and empty nesters – and found that the number of friends decreased across the groups (Kalmijn, 2003).
Single people also tend more to their friends, neighbors, siblings, and parents than currently married or previously married people do. Results of several national surveys in the U.S. showed that single people were most likely to stay in touch with, socialize with, give help to, and receive help from those people (Sarkisian & Gerstel, 2016). The findings were true of Blacks and Whites, rich and poor, men and women, and people with and without children.
Longitudinal research shows the same thing. Couples who marry or move in together become more insular. They have less contact with their siblings and parents than they did when they were single, and they spend less time with their friends (Musick & Bumpass, 2012).
When other people need help for long periods of time, single people are especially likely to provide it. Aging parents, for example, are more likely to get sustained support from their single children than their married ones (Laditka & Laditka, 2001). People who are not kin who need long-term help are also more likely to receive it from the unmarried people in their lives (Henz, 2006).
Single people, including those who have no children, play important roles in socializing the young. They are teachers, coaches, confidants, role models, and favorite aunts and uncles.
On a scale measuring Erik Erickson’s notion of generativity, the concern with guiding the next generation, single people scored just as high as married people, and women who were not parents (though not men) scored just as high as those who were parents (McAdams & de St. Aubin, 1992).
[Part 2 of this column is available here. This article is adapted from “As the number of single people grows, so does the significance of families of choice,” which appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of the National Council on Family Relations (NCFR) Report. Thanks to NCFR for permission to share it here.]
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Saluter, A. F., & Lugaila, T. A. (1998, March). Marital status and living arrangements: March 1996. Census Bureau: Current Population Reports, P20-496.
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Vespa, J., Lewis, J. M., & Kreider, R. M. (2013, August). America’s family and living arrangements: 2012. U. S. Census Bureau.
U. S. Census Bureau (2016). Historical time series tables. Historical table 1: Percent childless and births per 1,000 women in the last 12 months: CPS, selected years, 1976-2016.
U. S. Census Bureau (August 14, 2017). Facts for features: Unmarried and Single Americans Week: Sept. 17-23, 2017.