Development & Aid, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean, Population

POPULATION-BRAZIL: Living Alone – or in Three-Generation Households

Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, Sep 16 2003 (IPS) - The number of single-occupant households in Brazil rose 67 percent between 1991 and 2000, although among the lower socioeconomic strata there are many homes in which three generations live under the same roof, to share expenses.

The growing number of single-person households – more than four million were counted in the 2000 census, in this country of 171 million people – puts Brazil among the 10 nations contributing the most to the proliferation of housing, which has negative effects, according to a study by researchers at the University of Michigan in the United States.

The study identified 76 nations in which housing grew at a faster rate than the population between 1985 and 2000.

In those countries, the number of housing units grew 3.1 percent and the population 1.8 percent on average.

The researchers said that is not a good thing because it puts growing pressure on natural resources by increasing per capita consumption of water, energy, construction materials, home appliances, and urban infrastructure.

In 2000, the average number of persons per household in Brazil was 3.7 – a level seen as reasonable by experts and far higher than the average seen in rich countries like the United States. However, it is also quite a bit lower than the 1991 average of 4.19 persons per household.

When the 1991 census was carried out, single-occupant housing units represented 6.9 percent of the total, compared to 8.98 percent nine years later.

That is the result of several factors, including an increase in the number of divorces, the growing independence of women, the greater proportion of widows and widowers in an aging population, and ”a new lifestyle, which encourages individualism,” demographer Ana Amelia Camarano with the Institute of Applied Economic Research, which answers to the Planning Ministry, told IPS.

But that phenomenon is seen in the middle to high-income strata, while the average number of people per household remains high among the poor, who often live in overcrowded conditions.

Camarano said there are ”two opposite trends” – on one hand, more and more people are choosing to live alone, while on the other, ”many adult children return to their parents’ homes” in order to share expenses, which often gives rise to ”families of three generations living under the same roof: parents, children and grandchildren.”

The trend towards living alone ”is not predominant,” but is growing, said architect Alfredo Britto, based on his own observations in Rio de Janeiro, where one-bedroom apartments are once again being built, after they had largely been abandoned by the construction industry in favour of two or three-bedroom flats.

Britto himself, a father of four adult children, lives alone by choice in a large 270-sq metre house, after several failed marriages.

Many friends from his generation, in their late 50s, choose to live alone in ”apart-hotels” – apartments that provide hotel services – once their children become independent: ”a novelty that has become more and more popular in the past 10 years,” he commented to IPS.

But, he added, that does not mean isolation, because more and more couples are choosing to live separately these days – ”as in my case” – and the city offers many opportunities for a vibrant social life, ”that you frequent when you feel like it.”

Another trend, among the young, is that of roommates, each of whom has his or her own space in a big house and pays part of the rent, an alternative for those who would be unable to afford to pay rent on their own, said the architect.

Alba D’Almeida, a 48-year-old art teacher and therapist, told IPS that she feels lonely in her Rio de Janeiro flat, where she has lived on her own since her marriage of 12 years collapsed.

D’Almeida explained that she married ”very young, at the age of 21, and I had no life experience, and was afraid I would not be able to live alone” after the divorce.

But ”I was able to handle the situation, and I see that as an achievement, a victory,” she said. ”Living together doesn’t make you a couple,” she stated, underlining that she now has much higher standards, and that ”only a very special person” would be able to convince her to marry again.

Brazil is now experiencing a trend that began to be seen years ago in Europe, Kazuo Nakano, a city-planner at the Polis Institute in Sao Paulo, said in an interview.

”It is a purely metropolitan phenomenon,” he explained, pointing out that in Paris ”nearly half of all households are single occupant.”

In the past few decades, Brazil’s population has aged, the birth rate has fallen, and there is a greater proportion of ”new family arrangements,” which have led to a lower number of people per housing unit on average, said Nakano.

Architects and urban planners are studying possible alternatives for ”optimising resources,” such as the sharing of certain home appliances. A team at the Federal University of Sao Carlos, 240 kms from Sao Paulo, is researching possible solutions to ease the pressure on natural resources, said Nakano.

Both Camarano and Nakano said the proportion of single-person households would continue to grow in Brazil in the years to come.

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