How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century
by Bella De Paulo, Ph.D.
In the U.S. today, there are more single people than
ever before. It is not just that the age at which people first marry is
continuing to climb; a record number of Americans are likely never to marry at
all. A Pew report estimates that by the time today's young adults reach
age 50, about 25% of them will have been single all their lives. If you are
tempted to think of this as sad, think again. I have found that more people than
we may have imagined are
"single at heart" – they embrace single life as a meaningful and authentic
way to live.
Even for those who do eventually marry, single life now occupies substantial stretches of time. In fact, Americans spend more years of their adult lives unmarried than married.
In our cultural imaginations, most adults live in households comprised of mom, dad, and the kids. The reality is quite different: fewer than 20% of all American households are nuclear family households.
So how are we living now? That's the question I set out to answer for my book, How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century. I traveled around the country, asking people to show me their homes and tell me the story of their "lifespaces" – the places and spaces where they lived, and the people who were important to them. I also drew from the relevant social science literature (including my own work) and media reports of innovative ways of living.
Emerging adults in 21st century America are living in all sorts of ways, from the most traditional to the most innovative. Even when they are living in arrangements we might expect, they are often doing so in ways that are not at all stereotypical.
Sharing a home and a life. Today's emerging adults, like those of generations before them, sometimes live in a big house with other roommates and friends. Contemporary versions of house-sharing, though, are often different in important ways from those of the past. Perhaps most importantly, young adults aren't just living with other people because that's all they can afford. They want to share their lives with their housemates, and some live with others even when they can afford to live on their own.
Their time perspectives are sometimes different, too. Instead of thinking of their shared home as temporary, they sometimes settle in to a life together. In one example, four single heterosexual men who were friends in college got a place together after they graduated, and were still living together nearly two decades later.
When emerging adults are sharing a place with people other than family, those home-mates are not always other people their own age. Sometimes they are older adults who are redefining home and family. For example, in North Carolina, Maria Hall has for decades been welcoming into her home young people who have aged out of the foster care system. She has such a big heart that people of all ages and from all sorts of circumstances have also come to call her place home. Outside of D.C., "Marice" also has a big home that she shares with emerging adults as well as older adults. Marice and her teenage son came to the U.S. from China, so she has a special place in her heart and her home for other people who are new to the U.S.
Living alone – without feeling alone. Do you know what type of household is more commonplace than the nuclear family household? It is the household comprised of a single person living alone. It is a popular way to live among emerging adults who can afford it.
Today's young adults are putting their own stamp on a place of their own. Don't expect to find orange crates or other haphazard selections of furnishings; many emerging adults create spaces that are carefully and lovingly arranged.
A solo life is very unlikely to be a lonely life. Single people, including those who live alone, are actually more likely than people who get married to socialize with, stay in touch with, and exchange help with their neighbors, friends, siblings, and parents. Even when young adults are home alone in a place of their own, they are not really alone.
Thanks to modern communication technologies, much of the world is just a click away.
Living in communities. When I talked to people about what they wanted in their lifespaces, they described something we don't read about much in our scholarly literature or in the brochures created by realtors. They want just the right mix of time with other people and time to themselves.
One of the most promising ways of getting just that is to live in a place of your own within a community of people who really do want to be neighborly. One example is cohousing, "an intentional community of private homes clustered around shared space." Although cohousing communities include more middle-aged and older adults than younger ones, emerging adults have a place there, too.
Living in multi-generational households. Because of our lengthening lifespans, we have more opportunities than ever before to live with multiple generations. A 20-year-old in 2000 was more likely to have a living grandmother than a 20-year-old in 1900 was to have a living mother. We are all familiar with the emerging adults living with their parents. In my travels, I also visited households with three and even four generations all living under the same roof.
As always, the 21st century version of this living arrangement is different in important ways from decades past. As scholars such as Jeffrey Arnett and Karen Fingerman have shown, today's emerging adults have closer relationships with their parents than generations before them did. I found that as children grew into young adults, their relationships with their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents seemed to become less hierarchical.
After the years I spend researching How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, I concluded that the key relationship of the 21st century is friendship. The equality, choice, individuality, fluidity, and flexibility that characterize friendship are also among the most significant characteristics of modern life.
Bella DePaulo (PhD, Harvard) is a Project Scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is the author of How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century and Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. She writes the "Living Single" blog for Psychology Today and the "Single at Heart" blog for Psych Central. Visit her website at http://belladepaulo.com/.