The changing landscape of Canadian families

“Traditional family” — what’s that, you ask? At the peak of the baby boom, households with two parents and two kids were the norm. Fast-forward five decades and the statistics show there is more diversity in families and living arrangements than ever before.

Today, Statistics Canada released the latest set of information from the 2011 census focussing on families and the living arrangements of Canadians. Need evidence that the information is more complex than in the past? Consider the number of definitions of “families” and “households” we’ve accumulated over the years, including same-sex couples and common-law families.

A lot has changed in the past five, 10 and 50 years — including societal expectations and norms and the make-up of the population. As the baby boomers age, they continue to play a big part in new trends.

Here’s a look at some of the findings:

“Non-traditional” households on the rise

There’s no such thing as a “typical family”. A lot has changed in recent years, such as:

– Families are smaller. In 1961, the average family size was four people — now it’s down to three. Part of it could be families having fewer children, but the wake of the baby boom is still being felt.

– For the first time ever, there are more people living alone than couples with children. Just over 27 per cent of households are one-person — triple the proportion from 1961. Why? People are getting married later, divorce rates are higher and people are living longer (and often outliving their spouse).

– Stepfamilies are on the rise. Statistics Canada reports that 1 in 10 children now live in a stepfamily household.

– 44.5 per cent of families now have no children at home. The baby boomers are all grown up and moved out of their parents homes — and many are enjoying empty nests themselves.

– More people are choosing not to tie the knot. In 1981 — the first year when common-law families were counted — such unions made up 5.6 per cent of “census families” (households with more than one person who are considered a family unit). Now they account for nearly 17 per cent and outnumber lone-parent parents for the first time.

This trend doesn’t surprise us either — recent research shows that many people over age 50 are choosing to live together rather than marry.

– Though the increase in multiple-family households wasn’t huge — 1.8 per cent in 2001 to 2.0 percent in 2011 — experts note that immigration, the cost and availability of housing and other issues could be factors in more generations living together. For instance, multiple-family households are most common near Toronto and in Abbotsford and Surrey, British Columbia.

– The number of same-sex couples increased over 40 per cent from 2006 — up to 64,575 from 45,345. Still, they make up less than one per cent of families in Canada. It’s difficult to compare these numbers to the past because of changes in reporting. Statistics Canada didn’t include same-sex couples in the census until a decade ago, and same-sex marriages weren’t legal until 2005. Nearly two thirds of same-sex couples are common-law, but the number of same-sex marriages has more than tripled since 2005.

Number of “boomerangs” has leveled off

You might think the recession and a tough job market for youth would cause a spike in the number of young adults who are still living at home. Not so, according to the data. In 2011, 42.3 per cent of the 4,318,400 young adults aged 20 to 29 were living with their parents. The number is just a shade lower than the 42.5 per cent of young adults who were living with their parents in 2006. Still, the number of “boomerangs” is much higher than in the past — 32.1 per cent in 1991 and 26.9 per cent in 1981.

As you might expect, people in their early 20s were more likely to be living at home than people in their late 20s. In 2011, nearly two thirds of young men lived at home as did just over half of young women. These proportions fell to about 30 per cent and 20 per cent respectively among people in their late 20s.

Why are they still living at home or moving back home? The reasons likely won’t surprise you: difficulty finding a job, pursuing higher education, the high cost of housing, the breakdown of a relationship or cultural preferences. The report notes that young adults living with their parents is most common in areas with a higher immigrant population and where housing is the most expensive. In addition, fewer young adults are living as couples than in the past.

For full details, see Living arrangements of young adults aged 20 to 29.

Most seniors still choose to live as couples

Think old age means a nursing home? Most of Canada’s nearly 5 million seniors (defined as people age 65 and older) are still living in private households, says the new census data. Nearly one quarter are living alone, about 8 per cent are living in long-term care facilities or seniors residences and 11 per cent are living with relatives — though the numbers don’t specifically look at caregiving.

However, the most common living arrangement among seniors continues to be living as part of a couple — with a proportion of 56.4 per cent in 2011. (The data doesn’t specify whether the unions are common law or marriage.) Compared to 2001, fewer seniors are now living alone and more of them are living as part of couples

The 2011 census points out a familiar trend: women are twice as likely to live alone as they age than men — thanks in part to their longer life spans. However, experts think men’s increasingly long lives are a factor in more seniors living as couples than in previous decades.

For more information, see Living arrangements of seniors.

Overall, the data is complex and some people are already questioning the numbers given the change from the required long-form census to the controversial short-form version we saw in 2011 — which included the new National Household Survey (NHS). It can be difficult to compare today’s statistics with the past because what questions were asked and who was included has changed over the years. (For example, same-sex couples weren’t included until 2001 and foster children were only included in 2011.)

You also have to dig pretty deep to see how various trends play out in various parts of the country — “averages” don’t tell us a lot about what’s happening in any given area.

Still, the numbers show a remarkable amount of diversity among Canadian families and households. This certainly isn’t the first time Zoomers are setting new trends, and we can expect to see more “firsts” and more changing trends in the future.

Watch Susan Eng, Vice President for Advocacy at CARP, discuss the census results and their implications on CTV News.

Want to see the numbers yourself? Read the full report from Statistics Canada: Portrait of Families and Living Arrangements in Canada.

Photo © kristian sekulic