Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Subdividing a Stereotype: Elders, Singles Join Cleavers

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Subdividing a Stereotype: Elders, Singles Join Cleavers

Article excerpt

Something has changed in America's suburbs. It's as if the casts of "Friends" and "Golden Girls" moved next door to June and Ward Cleaver.

Once the bastion of the nuclear family, suburbia has diversified. Non-family households - singles, seniors, and non-traditional households - have edged out the iconic Cleaver family - 29 percent to 27 percent, according to a new study of Census 2000 figures by the Brookings Institution.

And by the looks of things, the trend will continue - challenging planners, politicians, and employers to adjust to the new reality.

Culturally, too, the suburban "ideal" - if it ever existed - seems to be fragmenting.

"Back in the 1950s, when you told someone you lived in the suburbs, you were telling something very special about your life story," says William Frey, a demographer at the Milken Institute and coauthor of the Brookings study. Diversity renders it almost meaningless today.

"Maybe the term 'suburb' will disappear," he adds.

The tipping point, as it turns out, occurred during the 1990s. Several demographic factors have pushed the change. For example, the rise in the divorce rate since the 1960s has created far more single- parent households. Households with children under 18 make up the same share of suburban households as they did in 1990. But now nearly a quarter of them are not headed by a married couple, according to the study, up from less than one in five a decade ago.

Another factor: Young singles fresh out of college are moving to suburbs because housing in the cities costs too much.

From dorm to subdivision

"You are getting lots of young people," says Kenneth T. Jackson, author of "Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States" and a history professor at Columbia University in New York. "They're moving there not because they prefer Hoboken to Manhattan. But they can afford it."

Meanwhile, retiring baby boomers - the first truly suburban generation, according to Dr. Frey - are staying put after wrapping up their careers. Such changes are most noticeable in the suburbs of the slow-growing cities in the Midwest and Northeast: places like St. Louis and Providence, R.I.

The shift can be seen tucked in the neat grid of single family homes in Warwick, R.I., just south of Providence. Here, the Pilgrim Senior Center - a pink and turquoise echo of Sun Belt retirement life - bustles with activity alongside the Pilgrim High School. While school enrollment has remained static for a decade, the senior center's enrollment is booming.

"It's pretty stunning," says Carol Panos, supervisor of health and social services at the center. In the late 1980s, she says, it took only four employees to run the center; now 27 workers operate this and a second new facility, and the program's five buses criss- cross town bringing clients to get cheap meals and social services, and attend support groups like one themed "Learning to Live Alone. …

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