Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Anybody Home?

Today, Linkedin asked: "Are we tired of living alone?" That wasn't really the right headline, although I understand that it's more likely to generate views than "Decline in household size slows." I suppose they could have gone with something closer to the headline of the Bloomberg article they were following on, "U.S. Household Size, at a Record Low, May Finally Be Bottoming Out," but Linked in doesn't leave space for long titles. I any event, as someone who fall into the category of "tired of living alone," I'll admit that I was curious. So I popped over to the Census Bureau to check out the numbers. Some of the same numbers, it turns out, that the Bloomberg article references.

With 36,479,000 single person households in the United States, it's the second most-common household size, and it has been for some time. (Two person households, as might be expected, have always held the top spot in the data given.) Living alone took over the number two spot from three person households in 1971, after surging from a distant fourth place in 1960. Now, there are nearly twice as many single person households as three person.

When I looked at the numbers, what stood out for me was the decline in large households. The percentage of households with five or more people in them is less than half of it was in 1960, having declined from nearly 23% down to a little above 9%. (And at six or more people, there has been a decline in the absolute numbers of households.) Three and four person households have also seen percentage declines, but much less steep. The percentage of single person households appears to have started leveling off about a decade ago, and it's mostly two-person households that have grown, at the expense of larger ones.

The Bloomberg article posits: "One possible cause: Americans are tired of living alone," and this seems to be what the LinkedIn headline writer picked up on, but the numbers don't bear this out. From 2015 to 2019, the percentage of single person households increased by .4%. At the same time, the number of two person households increased by .9%. Slight decreases in the percentages of three+ person households explain this.

I would presume that there is some anecdotal data that points to a rise in people moving into larger households, but the Bloomberg article doesn't offer any. In fact, the "Americans are tired of living alone," conjecture isn't even addressed within the body of the article. It's a subtitle, which is then forgotten about. And that's too bad. A shift in Americans' attitudes towards living alone is meaningful. That's useful information for any number of industries, and an interesting data point for many of the rest of us. It's worth noting that one and two person households are nearly 63% of all households, according to the Census Bureau's numbers. They've been the majority since 1975.

David Brooks recently had an article published in The Atlantic, titled "The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake." In it, he argues that the nuclear family is an artifact of a particular period of time, with particular circumstances, that has now passed, with the result being the forces that came together to make small households viable are disappearing or already gone. (Interestingly, Mr. Brooks also references the Census data that I found and that Bloomberg uses.) Mr. Brooks' conclusion is that "Americans are hungering to live in extended and forged (self-selected) families, in ways that are new and ancient at the same time." And he does back this up with some anecdotes. (Worldwide, according to the Pew Research Center, about 38% of people live in extended families. Pew acknowledges households with non-relatives, such as roommates, but doesn't break out the numbers.) Overall, his analysis smacks of the "it was better in the past" nostalgia that one might expect of a conservative author, but at least it doesn't seem to have been pulled out of thin air or wishful thinking. (Although I suspect that I'm going to start hearing about the Brooks article from other people I know, if they read it. Pretty much any time someone notes that "unmarried men are less healthy—alcohol and drug abuse are common—earn less, and die sooner than married men," people decide that I need to know about it.)

If the hunger that Mr. Brooks sees were to translate to larger household sizes, it would mean an important shift. Something that people here on LinkedIn would find valuable. The numbers, it seems, are out there. What we're missing it what they mean for the future. And that takes more than looking at some numbers and then conjecturing. And it's important to remember that there's nothing that says that larger household sizes are on the horizon. Larger families, whether they're due to closer integration with extended kinship networks or closer relationships with roommates, friends and other non-relatives, don't have to live under the same roof to be close.

P.S.: Note that how you crunch the numbers matters. While the Census Bureau says that the average household size in the United States is 2.52 people, according to Pew, the average American lives in a household with 3.4 people in it. Which makes sense: While there are more small (one or two people) households than larger ones, there are still enough larger households that the majority of people live in them.

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