Single living is wave of the present
Census data show surge across area; Alexandria and District stand out

By Carol Morello and Dan Keating
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Living alone is on its way to becoming the new norm in parts of the Washington area, as the proportion of households headed by married couples has declined and one-person households have jumped.

Population statistics released by the Census Bureau on Tuesday, based on samples taken from 2006 to 2008, reflect national trends that have accelerated since the 2000 census. The Washington area figures were particularly stark.

Every jurisdiction in the region showed a leap in single households. In most places, they now make up 20 to 30 percent of all households. In the District and Alexandria, almost half of all households have just one person.

"This sort of rubber-stamps Washington as the nation's mecca for singles," said demographer William Frey of the Brookings Institution.

Demographers said several factors, some going back decades, are fueling the rise in one-person households.

In some counties, such as Prince William or Fairfax, aging baby boomers are staying in place after their spouses have died, or they are moving to developments catering to seniors. In addition, close-in suburbs have encouraged the growth of high-density residential neighborhoods, dominated by condominiums, apartments and townhouses that appeal to young people.

"Generation Y wants to be in urban-lite locations," said Rollin Stanley, director of planning for Montgomery County. "As Washington has become an increasingly popular place to live and prices have increased, a lot are moving into the first suburbs, like us, to find more affordable housing close to transit."

Others said the phenomenon owes more to changes in society, with diminished stigma attached to living alone, either temporarily or for a lifetime.

"The last couple of decades have seen the emergence of a new life stage sociologists call 'early adulthood,' " said Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University who has studied families. "It's when young people are finishing their education, investing in careers, living on their own and postponing marriage. Washington is the nation's exemplar of that trend."

Lisa Neidert, a researcher with the Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan, said young people going through that stage are less likely to live with roommates than they were two decades ago. And people who divorce are less likely to remarry.

"It's the idea that if you're not in a married relationship, that's okay," she said. "You definitely have young people feeling more independent. On the other hand, strong family ties have faded a bit. In 1940, a 70-year-old was going to live with a 40-year-old son. Now, they're not even living in the same community."

The corresponding decline in the share of households with traditional nuclear families, to just 48 percent, suggests that local governments will be faced with competing, divergent demands for services from families who care most about schools and singles who have other priorities.

Although there are more singles everywhere in the region, some places continue to have relatively large numbers of traditional families. The proportion of households headed by married couples in the Washington region ranges from a high of 61 percent in Loudoun County to a low of 33 percent in Alexandria.

The smallest proportion of live-alones is in Prince William County, with 18 percent. Alexandria and the District each had 47 percent; Arlington County had 45 percent. The national average is 28 percent.

The growth appears to have little to do with seniors in several jurisdictions, where the proportion of people who live alone after age 65 has been essentially flat. But seniors have been a factor in higher numbers of singles in Howard, Montgomery, Fairfax and Prince William counties.

Government officials played down concerns about competing interests. They said the interests of residents, whether single or married, will converge more often than clash.

"Probably the top priority of citizens in Prince William has been and continues to be concerns about traffic and transportation," said Bill Vaughn, the county's demographer. "Singles will have the very same concerns as someone with three or four kids."

Fairfax County demographer Anne Cahill said the construction of more condominium units and townhouses in the county might draw single seniors who want to shed the hassles of owning a house. "They're residents we want to keep," she said.

The Census Bureau survey also showed an increase in the number of households headed by single parents. In Prince William County, 11 percent of households are headed by single parents, up from 7 percent in 1990. Fairfax and Loudoun counties stayed the same, about 6 percent. The District also stayed roughly the same, about 10 percent.

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