Monday, October 6, 2008

More than Roommates, Less than Lovers

Cohabitation has gone mainstream, and baby boomers, whose coming of age coincided with the sexual revolution and the rise of divorce, played a large role in legitimizing a practice once known as “living in sin.” According to U.S. Census data, the number of couples living together increased from 439,000 to 5,500,000 over the four decades between 1960 and 2000. It’s too early to say for sure, but Boomers may be in the vanguard of re-defining the family once again by putting a new spin on the term “roommates.”

GenXers and Millennials cohabit easily -- women, men, straights, gays, sometimes entangled romantically, often not. In most cases, young people who choose to live together fall into one of two categories: they’re couples, or they’re friends. Often, finance is a major consideration – young people lack buying power, so they pitch in together to rent a nicer apartment or to purchase a house. Thus, Time magazine popularizes a label for a new phenomenon: "co-hos" -- or communal homeowners. The non-sexual, roommate-style relationships are rarely stable or lasting, however. Invariably, someone moves in with a girl (boy) friend, moves to San Francisco, or gets in a fight over the Foosball table. Whatever.

But we read a story recently in the Richmond Times-Dispatch of two Boomer women – one a 68-year-old widow and the other a 52-year-old divorce – who pitched in to buy a house. Sharing the financial burden was one motive. So, too, was the desire for stable, long-term companionship.

Writes reporter Bill Lohman: Susan Grady and Sharon McAbee “represent what could become a trend – friends co-owning houses – for baby boomers, who, because of scattered family and because of their sheer numbers, might need to create their own support systems as they grow older."

At the Boomer Project, we expect this phenomenon to take off, especially among the distaff side of side of the generation. Nearly one third of all Boomers -- some 25 million -- are spouseless. (Twelve percent never married, about twice the percentage of the previous generation; 16 percent are divorced or separated, and 4 percent are widowed.)

As periodically remarked upon in news magazines, women over 40 have a far harder time finding mates than men. Boomer males – those who don’t live in cardboard houses or under the highway overpass – remarry at higher rates. It’s simple mathematics: Men die sooner, meaning less competition for available females. It is the sad fate of many females – sad at least to those who don’t subscribe to the notion that a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle – to find themselves spouseless and childless.

While convention dictates that widows and divorcees spend lonely lives in their own homes, living for the day their children come to visit, Boomer women have other ideas. As Lohmann tells the story, Susan Grady and Sharon McAbee were long-time friends, and they commiserated week after week on the phone how lonely they were. "Finally, we said, 'We're so stupid,'" Grady recalled. They decided to stop living alone and to buy a house together.

The duo now share three dogs and a one-eyed cat, split the cooking and other household chores, and share holidays with extended family. Said Gray: “It’s nice to have someone to cook for. … It’s just like getting married."

It’s not marriage, but the women are more than roommates. We don't know if there's even a name yet for the relationship between Susan Grady and Sharon McAbee. But we're betting that enough Baby Boomers will be living this way that someone will coin a term before long.

Update: This trend is bigger than I realized. Alison, a blogger at Women Bloom, was a widow for 11 years when she moved in with a friend. There have been "some privcy things to adjust to," she told us in a comment on this post, "but I'm sold on the idea." Allison's blog points to a website, CoAbode, a matchmaking service for single mothers who want to share expenses and support. An online matchmaker for widows and divorces can't be far behind.


Allison said...

I have a website for women in midlife called WomenBloom ( and I have published several articles and blog posts on cohousing.

Let's face it, for all the reasons you mention, it makes absolute sense. And not just for financial reasons although that is a biggie. Your two women are a perfect example of good friends pooling resources and mutual support to make their life more fulfilling.

I think after 9/11 friends and family became much more important to us. And now, with the economy in shambles and the uncertain future, I only see this trend increasing.

I moved in with a woman friend over a year ago after living by myself for 11 years (I'm widowed). It has been great, some privcy things to adjust to, but I'm sold on the idea.

Here is a link to WomenBloom's most recent article on the subject:


Rita said...

I think you are out of touch with single boomer women. Your description of the poor, lonely woman who sits by herself all the time mournfully because she doesn't have a partner and waiting for her children to visit isn't correct.

I know many single boomer women who are quite happy. If you're reading boomer blogs, I'm sure you've seen the dozens of ways boomer women are thinking of to connect with each other.

I write a boomer consumer blog called The Survive and Thrive Boomer Guide at


Jim Bacon said...

Allison, Thanks for getting in touch. Obviously, the co-housing trend is even bigger than we thought. We'll start tracking your blog.

Jim Bacon said...

Rita, Forgive me for being less than clear. It seems to be a cultural stereotype that Boomer widows and divorces sit alone in their houses, pining for company. But I certainly didn't mean to imply that the stereotype was valid. The single, 50-something women I know have a great time!

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