National Post

Wednesday, October 23, 2002

Aloneness becomes normal

Nuclear family has been atomized

Anne Kingston
National Post

Census numbers on family always provide a neat, bloodless snapshot of life's most tortuously complex relationships. They categorize, they articulate, they put everyone into tidy demographic boxes. But yesterday's release on the composition of Canadian families, revealing as it does radical shifts in the meaning of family, also forces us to rethink not only what a family is but what that means for the Canadian social fabric.

Certainly the numbers make clear that we can no longer trot out that long-mythical "Ozzie and Harriet" (or should that be Ozzy and Sharon?) Mom-Pop-two-children nuclear family model as some kind of norm. As of 2001, only one in four families conforms to it.

That cozy imagery of Janet and Wayne Gretzky with two of their three children in the current Gap ad, likewise, is mythical, in that only 44% of families are composed of dual parents who are married or living common-law with children.

And to blur the picture further, that number includes same-sex couples raising children together.

The census numbers made clear the traditions Canadians cleave to are shifting. Seventy per cent of all couples are married, but that number has declined from 83% in 1981. Conversely, common- law couples, who have most of the same legal entitlements of married couples, account for 14% of Canadian families, a number that has more than doubled from 6% just 20 years ago.

Without question the average Canadian family is shrinking --down to 2.6 people in 2001 from 4.0 in 1951. This is not a surprise: census data released last March revealed the fertility rate in Canada has dropped to 1.5 children per woman, far less than the 2.1 children per woman required to sustain the population and down from the fertility rate of 1.6 reported in the 1996 census.

Then there is the fact that an increasing number of couples is forgoing children altogether. The number of couples with no children under the age of 25 is on the rise; some 41% of families conform to this model, up from 38% in 1991 and 34% in 1981.

It also appears an increasing number of Canadians is forgoing being part of a couple; 12.5% of Canadians over age 15 live alone, a statistic up five-fold since 1951. Men, tellingly, tend to live alone more frequently when younger whereas women live alone in greater numbers as they age. Among adults aged 25 to 44, for instance, 14% of men lived alone in 2001 whereas only 7% of women did. More than a third of women over 65 live alone, as do nearly half of women aged between 74 and 85.

The elderly made up more than a third of single-person households, a finding that can be explained in part by the declining tendency to institutionalize or hospitalize ageing members of the population for long periods. Only 9.2% of senior women and 4.9% of senior men lived in health care institutions.

The greatest redefinition of the meaning of family in the 2001 census, paradoxically, was created by the census itself when it asked for the first time about same-sex relationships; merely asking the question acknowledged that same-sex couples constitute a family unit and should be counted as part of the social fabric. Not that the inclusion came out of left field; it was precipitated by federal legislation two years ago that gave same-sex couples the same benefits and obligations of heterosexual common-law couples. And now that same-sex couples are part of the institutional firmament, quantifying their numbers has become a necessity.

And these numbers reveal that same-sex couples account for a mere 0.5% of all couples and 3% of common-law couples. Additionally, 55% of same-sex couples are male, 15% of female same-sex couples have children living with them and 3% of same-sex male couples do.

The accuracy of this first glimpse into same-sex unions in Canada has been questioned by demographers who suggest the actual number of such couples may be higher, but, given social stigma that continues to surround homosexuality, some gay couples might not be willing to make their unions public.

What the numbers definitely don't reveal is how many same-sex couples would actually choose to be married in what was once known as a traditional union rather than to live common-law, given that it's not an option available to them. Thus we do not know whether same-sex couples would be the only couples, ironically, to buck the trend away from marriage and toward common-law.

Whether same-sex, common-law unions are on the rise is also impossible to glean given the lack of previous data. All we know is that the Canadian numbers are similar to those in New Zealand and the United States, the only Western countries that track same-sex unions in their censuses.

Census numbers have useful practical application for institutions, ranging from insurance companies to advertisers, who cannot afford to ignore these statistics even though the trends have been evident for years. The consumer clout of the single professional woman, for example, was famously documented in a 2000 study by Young & Rubicam's London-based Intelligence Factory. Titled "The Single Female Consumer," the report claimed professional, well-educated single women had come to constitute the largest consumer group in the Western world. They no longer felt the need to wait for Mr. Right to buy a house or even have a child.

Certainly the power of the consumer imperative can't be ignored in these numbers; the fact is, as soon as you're an appealing consumer demographic, any social stigma that might have existed recedes. Even DeBeers, propagator of the eternal marital romance of the diamond ring, recognized it was losing a market niche and began marketing the stone to single women in the late 1990s.

Likewise, this census serves up a slew of potential marketing opportunities. The CBC would be remiss, for instance, if it didn't see the possibilities for sitcoms such as The Cellar Dwellers, based on the census finding that children as old as 30 are refusing to leave home. Likewise, certain Canadian cities can now market themselves as singles meccas, such as St. John's, which is now officially the nation's singles capital with nearly 32% of households having a single occupant.

What is frustrating about combing through census numbers is their failure to reveal the nation's inner life, the emotional, personal choices made by its residents that result in the statistics. What is required is a list of supplementary questions that would force us to rethink the notion of choice in matters pertaining to family.

For getting married and having children have long been seen as active choices, life decisions rather than the default positions that not marrying or not having children are frequently presented. But, as we know, and as the census makes abundantly clear, not marrying or having children now must be seen as active choices, ones inextricably linked to women's greater economic independence, more reliable birth control, as well as a rethinking of personal satisfaction.

Less clear is whether older people living alone are doing so because it's what they want, a badge of independence and autonomy. Would they prefer to return to their family, or even seek out an alternative style of community?

That single life is no longer the social aberration it once was also forces us to rethink the notion of the loner as the social outsider. Not to mention the very definition of loneliness itself. The writer Tom Wolfe has said that loneliness is one of the last social stigmas. But that was because being alone was defined by an absence, a lack, rather than a choice.

The other question raised by this shifting of family is how it will affect our definition of social responsibility. Fifty years ago, marrying and raising a family was a rite of adulthood. Those who chose not to settle down and remained footloose, free of familial ties were seen to lack social moorings, like Will Freeman in Nick Hornby's About A Boy before he grew up.

But as the Canadian family shrinks and Canadians choose to live solo longer, we have to ask the extent to which this will result in increasing isolation and social fragmentation, and put us at risk of devolving into self-preoccupied singularity. Still, the fact revealed by yesterday's numbers is most people choose to live in some form of a family, the new non-traditional traditional families as presented in top-rated, if unrealistic, programs such as Friends and Will & Grace, which serve up single people creating unorthodox surrogate families.

As this census makes clear, the evolution of the traditional family will force us to rethink not only what a family can be, but what this new family can contribute to the ever-shifting Canadian social landscape.

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