Christian Science Monitor (USA), December
The Disney-released movie "The Incredibles"
depicts a family of five in which each member
has extraordinary powers. What the script leaves
unsaid is that they are unusual for something
more than Dad's super-strength: their family
Newly released Census Bureau figures emphasize
that over the last decades of the 20th century,
the size of US families has shrunk - dare we
say it? - incredibly fast. Since 1970 the percentage
of households containing five or more people
has fallen by half.
Meanwhile, the number of single and two-person
households has soared. One demographic group
that has increased particularly fast: single
women between the age of 30 and 35.
Thus, as the Economist magazine has pointed out,
the movie that might best represent this era
is "Bridget Jones," depicting a famously
single and young (well, youngish) heroine.
"It's clear from [the new Census figures]
that compared to the middle of the 20th century,
marriage is not nearly a universal status of
adulthood," says Barbara Whitehead, codirector
of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers
University. "There is much more diversity
in living arrangements."
This doesn't mean that Disney isn't aware of
the nature of its target audience. In recent
years, its films have depicted a number of
untraditional family groups. There's "Finding
Nemo," based on a widowed father living
with his son. And what could be more au courant
than "Toy Story," in which a diverse
group of playthings live together in a kind
of plastic commune?
But the model of three children living with both
their natural parents, or, indeed, the model
of five people living together at all, is somewhat
retro today, taking overall statistics into
account. In 1970, 21 percent of households
had five or more people, according to a newly
released Census analysis. Today it has dropped
to 10 percent.
During that same time period, the share of households
with one or two people increased from 46 percent
to 60 percent. Overall, the average number
of people per household decreased from 3.14
to 2.57. "Households have decreased in
size, with the most profound changes occurring
at the extremes, the largest and smallest households,"
concludes the Census report on America's families
and living arrangements.
(Sponges living by themselves in a pineapple
were statistically insignificant and thus were
not included in the Census figures. That would
be "SpongeBob SquarePants," a Nickelodeon
Still, the Census did note that the proportion
of young, never-married singles has increased
dramatically in the US. That's particularly
true for women of a certain age. The number
of households consisting of single women 30
to 34 has tripled since 1970. "The demographic
trends that we are seeing are really quite
dramatic, and are creating what I see as backlash,"
says Bella DePaulo, a psychologist at the University
of California at Santa Barbara.
Ms. DePaulo sees a gap between the nation's actual
demographics and the way society is reflected
on TV, in advertisements, and so forth. "There
is this relentless glorification of marriage
and coupling at a time in the nation's history
when marriage has never been less important,"
The reduced fertility behind the drop in family
size is the result of many factors, among them
the increase in the percentage of women who
work and the rising expense of raising children
in today's society. The norms of parenthood
are simply different now, says Ms. Whitehead.
Parents are more concerned with putting effort
into the raising of each child, by guiding
them through the right schools and other efforts.
Unlike European societies, the US has limited
government support for families, in the sense
of subsidized child care or job-protection
rights. Thus big families run by stay-at-home
moms may be becoming the province of the upper
classes, who can afford them. "You can
juggle one child, or possibly two, but how
can you work and adequately care for four,
five, six children?" says Whitehead.
And it's mothers who are doing the juggling.
The US has an estimated 5.5 million stay-at-home
parents, according to a new analysis by the
Census Bureau. Of these, 5.4 million are women.
The Census Bureau judges that there are only
98,000 true stay-at-home dads in the whole
country, despite the number of cinematic depictions
of fathers who lose their jobs and find happiness
ferrying kids to school and constructing art
out of toilet-paper rolls.
Given all this, singles may feel it's time to
flex their muscles, culturally speaking. Why
not a National Singles Day? That's the suggestion
of Thomas Coleman, executive director of Unmarried
"A lot of single people feel shortchanged,
especially when some of their friends have
already had a wedding, or two weddings, and
baby showers," he says.
Disney take note. Perhaps a follow-up: "The
Incredible," as in only one.
<< Christian Science Monitor -- 12/2/04
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