One of the major lifestyle changes of the twentieth century was the dramatic increase in the proportion of Americans who lived alone.  Virtually outlawed in Early America, rarely done in the early twentieth century, it became a stage of life for many Americans, especially for elderly women, by the end of the century. (In 2000, about one-third of American women 65 and older were living alone.)
The question of whether this trend is a good or bad thing has been a matter of concern. Eric Klinenberg’s recent best-seller, Going Solo, conveys the positive side of the discussion (see also this earlier post).
Another side of the discussion is trying to make sense of why Americans increasingly chose to live alone. Is it because Americans became increasingly disaffected with family or because Americans became increasingly able to afford their own living spaces? The recent economic shocks we have gone through provide a way to contrast people’s “tastes” for solo living versus their budgets for solo living.
The long trends
Just to simplify matters, let’s take a look at what happened to young adults – ones who were largely done with school and college, but often not yet settled down to job and marriage. The figure below shows the percentage of Americans aged 25 through 30 who were living alone in 1950 through 2010.
Two points are evident. One is the rapid increase between 1950 and 1980 in the percentage living alone, from virtually none to several percent. Second, the 30-year-long trend stopped flat for the next 30 years. The percentage of solo-livers ceased rising even though young Americans kept extending their educations and kept delaying marriage further. What happened? Did young Americans’ preferences change or did their means change?
Back to the nest
A study by Zhenchao Qian, written for the Russell Sage Foundation (pdf), sheds some light on the question from another angle. Qian tracks the percentage of young Americans who were living with one or both parents from 1980 through 2008. The figure below shows that percentage for 25- to 29-year-olds, almost the same age group as above. The percentage living with a parent rose from 14 to 21 percent for men and from 9 to 16 percent for women.
I interpret the increasing percentage who are still or who have returned to live with a parent as reflective of the economic times: the growing difficulty of finding secure employment combined with the rapid increase in the cost of housing over the three decades. The temporary cessation of that trend in the 1990s reinforces the point, since it included several years in which the job and income situation for most Americans notably improved.
Reinforcing that analysis are Qian’s tables giving a breakdown of the situation in 2008. Among 25-to-29-year-old men and women who were employed and earning at least $20,000 a year, only 14 percent were living at home with mom or dad; among those who were employed but earning less than $20,000, 26 percent were at home; and among those who were unemployed, 35 percent were. It sure seems like a decision young Americans made only when they had to.
This is not to say that “taste” had nothing to do with it. Qian points out that among the economically worse off, there were small differences by ethnicity and those seemed to reflect the circumstances of the parents. For example, 35 percent of the non-Hispanic whites who were unemployed and 31 percent of the Latinos who were unemployed lived with parents. Among the better-paid employed young adults, however, the differences were greater: 12 percent of the whites and 18 percent of the Latinos (and 23 percent of the Asians) lived with their parents, which suggests some ethnic variation in preferences.
Another report, this on European patterns (here), shows great variations even among the more affluent nations. The percentage of men aged 25-to-34 living with parents in 2008 ranged from 48 and 31 percent for Italy and Austria to 3 and 4 percent for Denmark and Sweden. Some of that variation may reflect the cultural “familism” of the nations, but some must also reflect the job opportunities and the cost of housing of the nations.
In any case, the American pattern suggests that varying tastes for solo living may matter, but that they are submerged by a larger pattern – that Americans generally prefer to have their own places and when they can afford it, they get them.
 Fischer and Hout, Century of Difference, pp. 83-86.
Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.