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Family structures ebb under rising tide of 'New Lonelies'

Shelley Fralic
Vancouver Sun
Friday, September 28, 2007

When you look at your life through the data-collecting lens of Statistics Canada, you are surprised to learn that, no matter how special you think you are, there are millions more like you, neatly slotted into categories like Same-Sex Couples, Married With Children, Single Fathers, Adult Children Who Live At Home, Childless Couples, Couples Living In Sin.

Truth is, we are but statistics.

Your statistical imprint changes over your life, of course, and if you're a woman it can cover a wide range of pigeonholes, like working teen, new mother, career woman, single parent, widow.

Man or woman, we are all but lines on an actuarial chart gathering dust in an Ottawa archive.

We are reminded of this every five years, when the state does its national head count, so as to monitor just how quickly our households change face, and thus tax us inappropriately for another five years.

This laborious, and some say invasive, collection of data, and the subsequent descriptive nomenclature assigned to it, is simply the state's way of charting the familial evolution, and the breakaway groups, of those who once gathered around the conventional campfire.

Once we give up the personal goods, we can hardly wait until the results are released, such fun it is to find oneself among the mountain of statistics, and subsequent news stories with their charts and graphic depictions.

One thing's for sure: the times are a-changin', and it's getting tougher to navigate the masses without a glossary, for we are fond of naming new factions.

No one's really a pensioner any more, for instance, but instead are empty nesters.

The ubiquitous baby boomer has been joined by, among others, Generation X, the echo boomers, the boomerangs, and the clubhouse sandwich generation, all of which are clever ways of saying that what once seemed like simple living arrangements have long gone the way of doctors' house calls.

Remember the married mom and dad who had children who grew up and married and had their own kids making mom and dad happily retired still-married grandparents?

Forget about it.

Like my colleague, columnist Pete McMartin, says in writing about his membership in the declining stat that is the traditional family, he and his fading ilk are but floating out to sea "on the ebb tide of history."

Me, I'm riding in on the new wave.

That's because, according to the new 2006 census figures, I'm a New Lonely.

We are not the lonelies of generations past, those oft-pitied old maids and odd single men, who never married or seemed to do much else except putter, who lived behind closed curtains in stale-aired apartments stuffed with old newspapers and scruffy cats, who scared the kids at Halloween with their dark houses and cheap treats, and who were on the list of must-avoids your parents recited every time you left the house.

We are not even the recognizable widows and widowers of yore, who after a full life of marriage and child-rearing, suddenly, sadly, find themselves waking up to breakfast for one.

We instead are the men and women, many of them far from retirement - three million Canadian households of them, in fact - now living alone.

That's an 11.8-per-cent rise in one-person households since the previous census.

The 2006 census posits that this astonishing stat is partly due to our aging population, but it's also surely true of the increasingly isolated world we live in, where technology and fear have turned us inward, where the once-coveted happily-every-after-married-with-kids life is often seen as unattainable, inconvenient or an economic stunter.

We are marrying later in life, if at all. We have having children later in life, if at all. If we divorce, we often don't remarry, especially women, who tend to keep the kids and when the kids are gone, find themselves forever single.

In my little social world, there are more and more women in their 50s living alone, often still rattling around in the family home, the children long gone, the husband dead or more likely remarried, usually to a younger, firmer specimen.

Or we're a mid-30s or mid-40s man or woman who never seemed to make the love connection that would take them from one-person household to married with children, but instead took the career path that led to the high-rise condo, the new car every few years and the annual getaway to an all-inclusive Mexican resort.

We are not a generation of lonelies to be pitied, for there is a freedom, especially in the first few years of solo life, to be found when waking up alone on a Sunday morning to a quiet house and no responsibility.

But in a world, and a society, where we have all been conditioned to share our intimate lives with others, it will always be an odd feeling to live in a home where there is only one heart beating.

That said, thanks to StatsCan, I'm just happy to discover I'm not really alone.
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