From 'Leave It to Beaver' to 'Modern Family'

Kaid Benfield takes a moment to reflect on the changing nature of the American household and how it will shape our cities in the coming years.
Wikimedia Commons / Wikimedia

Ah, the holiday season – a time to gather around the table with loved ones, to keep old traditions alive, to make new ones as our families change and grow. Traditionally, the nuclear family has been painted as an anchor for these traditions, but Benfield poses some challenging questions for that particular, conventional view of American society.

"Does our storytale version of family life resemble real family life? Does it exclude people who are not part of or close to their families? Is the concept of 'family' changing, with implications for the planning profession? The answers are, of course, seldom; usually; and definitely."

According to recent reports from the U.S. Census Bureau, the American household is becoming an increasingly heterogeneous thing. Households composed of individuals, unmarried couples, and never-married single mothers are all on the rise, as two-parent families (especially those with working fathers and stay-at-home mothers) have followed a steady decline since the 1960s.

That's not to say, of course, that two-parent families have fallen into obscurity; they still represent a solid majority of all family households.

"Rather, we have a diverse and changing array of household types and circumstances that smart planners and businesses will seek to accommodate. The census data show that the growing parts of the housing market are nonfamily households, smaller households including people living alone, unmarried couples, single-parent households with kids, and older households."

Full Story: Meet the modern American family



The Data Distorts the Trend

Benfield writes: “the number and portion of people living alone has risen steadily and significantly for decades.”

If you are just interested in the implications of family change for planning, it makes sense to use this sort of data: we need more housing for one person households.

If you are interested in the ways society is changing, you need to take account of the aging of the population. Because people are living longer, there are more single-family households made up of one surviving widow or widower. The survivor might have lived 25 years of adult life as a parent in a leave-it-to-beaver family, but might then live alone for 30 years after her children move out and her husband dies. In 1940, she would have died younger and might have lived alone for only 10 years.

Of course, there has been a shift away from the traditional family, but the numbers Benfield is using exaggerate this shift by not correcting for our longer life expectancy.

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