When people discuss family life there is often a confusion between family as kinship and family as household. The two ideas are so much part of commonsense understandings of “family” that they are elided together. Though less common in sociology, a similar lack of clarity over what aspect of “family” is being examined sometimes arises. In principle, the distinction is clear cut. Family as kin are all those people who are linked to you genealogically or who you otherwise define as kin (Schneider 1968; Silva & Smart 1999). Typically, they remain kin whether or not they live with you, though the boundaries of inclusion and exclusion drawn around ”my family” may alter across the life course. Households, on the other hand, are essentially those people who share a home with you. In this sense ”my family” are those with whom I live and with whom I participate in a domestic economy. The membership of an individual’s household will certainly change over time, and may for significant periods include people who are clearly not regarded as family.
Defining who belongs to a household appears relatively straightforward and for many people it is. There is a clear cut group of individuals who normally eat together, share a common housekeeping, and sleep in the same dwelling. These are the essential criteria used for defining a household, criteria which in different combinations are utilized in official government practices, records, and statistics. However, both in the past and currently, these issues are not quite so simple for all. At times, for example, some people may eat many of their meals in one house hold but sleep in another. Thus, one or more children in large sibling sets may sleep at a grandparent’s house where there is more room, but otherwise live with their parents. Or a daughter or son with an elderly, infirm parent may regularly sleep at the parent’s house in order to provide care at night.
Contemporary demographic patterns are also making the boundaries of households more diffuse than they were. For example, increasing numbers of people are spending different times of the week in different houses, usually as a result of conflicts between employment and domestic demands. Thus, some people do weekly commutes to work, living in one household during the week – possibly a small apartment or shared house – while living in the ”family home” at weekends. A growing number of couples are also now ”living apart together,” sometimes through choice rather than employment demands. Here each partner maintains their own home, but they also regularly spend time together in one or other of their homes. Whether the individuals involved in these arrangements are defined as living in one or two households, or as having a multiple household, is a moot point, as in some cases may be the question of whether they are ”family” to one another. The central issue though is that the living arrangements people construct are flexible and variable and consequently cannot always be characterized as fitting neatly into a single household.
Other demographic changes have also had an impact on the composition of households. The rise in divorce, for instance, has clearly contributed to the higher numbers of lone parent households there now are, as well as to the increased proportions of people living alone for periods in midlife. So too the rise in separation and divorce has resulted in an increasing number of children whose parents share care of them in separate households. In terms of their own household experience, these children belong to more than one household, alternating between each parent’s household for whatever periods of time have been agreed. Other demo graphic shifts that have affected household composition include changes in life expectancy resulting in longer periods spent without dependent children in the household and later marriage age. This latter has had consequences for both the number of single person households and for the rise of non-familial shared households consisting of unrelated friends and others living together (Heath & Cleaver 2003).
Generally, these demographic shifts have contributed to a greater degree of household diversity and mobility. In the early phases of adulthood particularly, people’s ”household careers” are often less ”ordered” than they were, with changes in living arrangements being quite common. As well as the growth of shared housing as a living arrangement, young people are also now more likely than previously to be involved in relatively temporary cohabiting relationships of different durations. Equally, at least in Britain and other European countries, there has been a marked tendency for the process of leaving the parental home to be less clear cut than it was for previous generations (Holdsworth & Morgan 2005). That is, not only are adult children living for longer periods in the parental home, but there is also a noticeable trend for them to return to the parental home as circumstances in their lives – changing employment, relationship breakup, financial pressures – alter.
As a result of these different trends, overall patterns of household composition have been changing quite significantly in most western countries over the last 30 years. Taking Britain as an example, household size has continued to reduce, from nearly 3 people per household in 1970 to 2.3 in 2002 (National Statistics 2005). Currently, only a fifth (21 percent) of households consist of what used to be conceptualized as the ”standard” family households of two adults and dependent children, compared to 31 percent at the end of the 1970s. And of course this number now includes increasing numbers of cohabiting unions and stepfamilies, as well as first time marriages. Significantly, nearly a third of all households (31 percent) are single person households (compared with 21 percent in 1978), though the routes into these single person households and the length of time spent in them varies significantly. A further third of households (34 percent) now consists of couples living alone, either married or cohabiting; some have not had children and others have children who are no longer dependent. The remaining households generally comprise lone parent households (8 per cent) and those where people are living with friends/unrelated others (4 percent). Importantly, as discussed above, just as household composition has been altering, so too there is even greater flux over time in the personnel involved in each category as people’s domestic circumstances and partnership status alter.
While these figures are about Britain, broadly similar trends are found in other western countries as a result of shifting family demography under the global processes of late modernity (Buzan et al. 2005). As noted, the growth of cohabitation, divorce, and separation and the lack of clarity over the processes of children leaving home are having an impact throughout the developed world. Clearly, though, the extent to which they occur and the impact they have depend in part on the social, fiscal, and urban policies impacting on family and household organization in the different societies. One significant element within this is the operation of the housing market. The availability of different forms of housing to different sections of the population, the costs and quality of such housing, and the alternatives which are considered acceptable all have an impact on the choices people make and the pattern of households they construct. To take one example, at a macro level, increased separation and divorce are likely to generate provision of more single person housing, but in turn people’s decisions about whether or not to remain in a particular partnership will be influenced to some degree by their perception of the housing that will be available to them. Similarly, decisions about leaving the parental home will be based on alternative housing options as well as ideas of appropriate independence.
- Buzan, S., Ogden, P., & Hall, R. (2005) House¬holds Matter: The Quiet Demography of Urban Transformation. Progress in Human Geography 29: 413 36.
- Heath, S. & Cleaver, E. (2003) Young, Free and Single: Twenty Somethings and Household Change. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke.
- Holdsworth, C. & Morgan, D. (2005) Transitions in Context: Leaving Home, Independence and Adulthood. Open University Press, Maidenhead.
- National Statistics (2005) Living in Britain: The 2002 General Household Survey.
- Schneider, D. (1968) American Kinship: A Cultural Account. Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ. Silva, E. & Smart, C. (1999) The New Family? Sage, London.