Welcome to the second of a 2-part article on the families we choose. Part 1 is here. The references are at the end of Part 1.
Whether Living Alone or with Others, Singles Cultivate Social Ties
For single people who live alone, the people who are important to them live outside of their homes. That doesn’t stop them from getting out and spending in-person time with those people. In fact, people who live alone are more engaged in the life of their cities and towns than people who live with others (Klinenberg, 2012). And, in a result that surprised social scientists, a study of more than 16,000 German adults found that, as long as the people living alone were similar to those living with others in important ways such as income and education, the solo dwellers were actually less lonely (Luhmann & Hawkley, 2016).
Although the number of people living alone has been growing for decades, most unmarried people live with others. Some are sharing a home with friends or family. No longer are these arrangements mostly the province of the Golden-Girls demographic or very young adults; now, people across the age spectrum are living with others. Increasingly, they are doing so not (just) to save money, but to share their lives. Their home-mates are often members of their families of choice.
Other singles live in places of their own but in communities in which people are committed to being part of one another’s lives. Cohousing neighborhoods are one example; they include a “common house” where members meet for some of their meals and for other shared activities.
Single parents are creating family in ways that would have been unfathomable not so very long ago. For example, some single-mother families look for other single-mother families with whom they can share a home and a life. The online platform CoAbode was created to facilitate their efforts. Even more radical are sites such as Modamily and Family by Design that help single people who want to parent, but do not want to be single parents, find a parenting partner. The partners commit to parenting together at least until their children reach adulthood; marriage and romance are not part of the package.
Many single people, whether they live alone or with others, “do” family in familiar ways. They recognize the people who are important to them. They share their day-to-day lives, help one another, celebrate the holidays, create a sense of identity, and become the social convoys that sail together through their lives.
Keeping Up with a Changing Society
For too long, “alone” and “unattached” have been used synonymously with “single.” So have expressions such as “she doesn’t have anyone.” We now know that these sentiments are inaccurate. Most single people are not alone. They have people in their lives who are significant in the same ways as nuclear family members. Going forward, family scholars need to recognize that the meanings of family are bigger and broader than they have ever been before.
The policy implications of the significance of chosen family members are profound. Too many laws offer no benefits or protections for chosen family members. For example, under the Family and Medical Leave act, workers in eligible workplaces can take time off only to care for a spouse, parent, or one’s own child. People who are willing to do the important work of caring for others cannot take time off under FMLA if the person in need does not fit into one of those categories. Single people with no children are particularly disadvantaged – no one can take time under the law to care for them. Many people are providing that care anyway. A recent national survey by the Center for American Progress found that 32% of adults in the U.S. have taken time off from work to care for a chosen family member (Gallagher et al., 2017). As the number of single people continues to grow and as the population ages, the need for more inclusive policies will become even more pressing.