If you take a look at the changes in family living arrangements since the 1970s, a few things seem to jump off the graph. First, you can’t help but miss the drop in the proportion of married couples with children households (a percentage almost halved in just under 40 years). What’s more interesting, however, are the family forms (defined by the Census as “nonfamily households” – which has the feel of a pointed term) that have picked up those stray percentage points.
Living arrangements that fall into the categories that the Census designates as “family households” really don’t show enormous change aside from the huge decline in married couples with children. A great deal of attention has been paid to the “other nonfamily households” as interest in cohabitation and it’s alleged effects are heavily scrutinized. The other categories (women living alone and men living alone) receive a bit less attention, but together, all three categories account for a great deal of the decline in married couple with children households.
One fact that is visible quickly is that women are more likely to live alone; that is to say, more women live alone in the U.S. than do men. There is a sort of bi-modal distribution of people living alone by age: young people do it and older people do it. Some of this statistic is easily due to women having a longer average life than men (exacerbated by the fact that women also marry about 2 years younger than men–see here). This is probably at least part of the reason that Judith Jones’ cookbook – The Pleasures of Cooking for One - was so wildly successful. But it’s also true that more people are simply electing to live alone. The proportion of households in the U.S. in which men live alone has more than doubled in 40 years, while the presence of “bachelorette pads” has gone from 10.6% of U.S. households to 16.8%. Together, men and women living alone account for almost 30% of American households! This transition is no small feat.
Some scholarship focuses on how men and women live alone, and – in classic “battle-of-the-sexes” style – asks who’s better at it. This is a small topic in Eric Klinenberg‘s new book – Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone (see here and here for a brief discussion of the book). Klinenberg echoes others in finding that it’s not only that women are living alone in great numbers, they also just seem to be generally better at it than men. As writer, Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow puts it, women are better at “[living] alone without being alone.”
Universalists beware! This DOES NOT MEAN that women are naturally better suited to live alone. What it does mean is that U.S. women are (on average) prepared for solitary life in ways men (on average) are not. So, Klinenberg highlights the various ways that living alone is a “gendered pattern” (see also here) both in terms of who lives alone and in terms of how they live alone. Psychologists also support this claim, arguing that girls in the U.S. are better prepared early on to interact with other people and to take part in the communities in which they live. We also know that men make and maintain friendships at rates much lower than women; men also interact with their own family members at lower rates. Men, on average, have smaller and less meaningful social networks than do women.
Klinenberg wrote another study on the Chicago Heat Wave, and among the more interesting findings, he found that elderly men were much less likely to live alone in Chicago at the time (primarily because their spouses more commonly outlived them), but older men living alone were disproportionately more likely to have died alone as a result of the heat. They didn’t do anything or go anywhere. Older women living alone did. Men and women may both live alone, but they don’t do it in precisely the same ways. Interestingly, the men in Klinenberg’s study who report reliable support from friends live alone in ways that might be called “feminine.” These men are less socially isolated, but they are not the norm.
Certainly women’s and men’s living spaces are gendered, but it’s also true that women and men have drastically different experiences of those spaces as a result of being more (women) or less (men) likely to maintain the family and friends that they have and to take advantage of the communities in which they reside.
I have more on bachelor pads planned for a post soon, but this issue seemed too interesting to pass up. Thanks to Christina Simko for recommending this topic. Interesting reading!