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The American Family Is Drifting Away from Marriage

The number of single people of all ages grows in the US. People are marrying later and less frequently. Family size is shrinking and the extramarital birth rate is growing according to the ‘Global Demographic Barometer’ of the Demoscope Weekly journal

The number of households has grown, and their size has shrunk

Over the last half century, average U.S. household size has decreased 1.3 times. In the early 1960s, it was 3.36 people, and in 2012 – 2.55 people. This decrease is explained by the ‘singleness epidemic’ – a growing share of people living without relatives or partners. It more than doubled over the 1960s and 1970s (from 3.7% in 1960 to 8.0% in 1980), and in the 2000s, it exceeded 10% (fig.1), reports Demoscope Weekly. Today there are 117 million households in the U.S., while 70 years ago there were 35 million.

Figure 1. Average household size and the share of single people, USA, 1960-2012.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, March, and Annual Social and Economic Supplements, 2012 and earlier; United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2011). World Population Prospects: The 2010 Revision

The number of marriageless families will only grow

Americans’ marital behaviour is changing considerably, says Demoscope Weekly. The share of family households decreased from 85% in 1960 to 66% in 2010, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.

Family households are spouses with children under 18 or without children, a single parent with children, and other groups of relatives living together. Non-family households are single people and unregistered partnerships. At the same time, the journal specifies that if a man lives with a woman who has a child and is the head of the household, this household is considered to be of the family type.

Table 1. U.S. households by type, according to 1940, 1960, 1980, 2000, and 2010 census data, %







Family households






Married couple with children






Married couple without children






Single parent with children






Other families






Non-family households






Single people






Other non-family households






Source: Linda A. Jacobsen, Mark Mather, and Genevieve Dupuis. Household Change in the United States // Population Bulletin 67, no. 1 (2012). P. 3

During the last 30 years the share of family households has been decreasing. According to 2010 data, their share has fallen to 66.4%, including households with spouses whose share has fallen to 48.4%. This is explained by the fall in the number of two-parent families. At the same time, the number of single people and non-married couples, as well as single-parent families, has been growing.

In the next ten years, many children of the post-war baby boom in the U.S. will reach retirement age. This means that the share of households with spouses and children will be decreasing faster.

‘Matriarchy’ and retirees’ loneliness

Among family households without a married couple, the majority are headed by a woman. In the early 1950s, the share of such families was about 8%. In 2012, it reached almost 13%.

Non-family households are also often headed by women. However, over recent years this correlation has become balanced. In 2011-2012, the share of non-family households headed by a man reached almost 16% in the total number of households, and the share of women-headed non-family households is 18%.

The growing share of non-family households is due to the growing number of elderly people, mostly women, living solo. Independent living has spread with the development of pension and social aid systems.

Partnerships are trying to ‘compete’ with families

The number of non-family households has grown mostly due to the popularity of unregistered partnerships. Their share of households in 2010 was about 7% – seven times greater than in 1970. And this figure is somewhat lower due to the difficulty of calculating such households.

The number of unregistered partnerships with children is also growing. According to the 2010 U.S. census, seven million opposite-sex couples lived together without being married. And 40% of them had one or more children under 18. This is almost the same number as married couples.

Same-sex partnerships represent less than 1% of households having a couple. In 2010, there were 594 same-sex couples in the U.S., and every fifth one had at least one child under 18.

Fewer and fewer households with children

The share of families with children under 18 in the total number of family households is falling, Demoscope Weekly reports. In 1950, 52% of family households in the U.S. included children under 18. In 2012, this figure fell to 43.5%. This is happening due to the shrinking share of families consisting of a married couple with children – from 51.8% in 1960 to 29.4% in 2012. The share of single-parent families has grown to 14% in the last year (see Fig.2).

Figure 2. The share of families with children under 18, % of the total number of families, USA, 1950-2012


Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, March, and Annual Social and Economic Supplements, 2012 and earlier. FM-1.  Families, by Presence of Own Children Under 18:  1950 to Present

Marriage ‘is getting older and losing ground’

Another sign of marriage (and reproductive) behaviour’s ‘mutation’ is the postponement of marriage. The ‘Aging’ of marriage or the refusal to marry, and a larger distribution of divorces and unregistered unions have considerably changed the marital structure of the population, the journal emphasizes.

Over the last 40 years, the share of young people aged 20 to 29 who have never been married has constantly been growing. Today more than a third of the men aged 30-34 are ‘chronic’ bachelors. Over one quarter of the women their age have never been married.

Divorce has become common for generations born in the U.S. in the second half of the 20th century. The share of divorced and separated is considerably larger than the share of widowed men and women in all demographics, except for the oldest group (the over-65s). The largest shares of the divorced and separated are among men (17%) and women (21%) aged 50-54.

The trend to postpone marriage has been gaining momentum for almost 40 years – since the mid-1970s. By 2012, the average age of a first marriage (see Fig.3) reached 28.6 for men and 26.6 for women.

Figure 3. Median age at first marriage, USA, 1890-2012

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, March, and Annual Social and Economic Supplements, 2012 and earlier. Table MS-2.  Estimated Median Age at First Marriage, by Sex: 1890 to the Present

The birth rate is falling; the share of births outside marriage – 40%

The share of women who have given birth to three children has been constantly decreasing in the U.S., and the share of those who have given birth to one or no children, on the contrary, has been growing. As a result, among women aged 40-44, the values of these three indicators converged, accounting for roughly 19%. (Mary Mederios Kent. U.S. Fertility in Decline)

As a result, the overall  birth rate index (the average number of births per woman of reproductive age, 15 to 49 years) has fallen to the level of simple reproduction (generation replacement) – 2.1, and, due to the economic recession, to 1.9 in the late 2000s.

The share of births outside marriage over the last half a century has grown eight times – from 5.3% in 1960 to 41% in 2010. The youngest mothers lead in illegitimate births: 86% of women aged 15-19 in 2011, and 62% of women aged 20-24. Women, aged 30 and older, give birth within marriage more often (see Fig.4).

Figure 4. Distribution of children by age and marital status of their mothers, and the proportion of births outside marriage, USA, 2011, %

Source:  Rachel M. Shattuck and Rose M. Kreider. Social and Economic Characteristics of Currently Unmarried Women with a Recent Birth: 2011. / American Community Survey Reports. Issued May 2013. ACS-21

Births outside marriage are more popular among women with a lower education level. Among women having at least a bachelor’s degree who gave birth in 2011, only 8.8% were unmarried. And among those who have not finished school, 57%.

Births outside marriage are directly related to the level of household wealth, Demoscope Weekly reports. Among women who gave birth in 2011, the share of the unmarried was greatest in households with the lowest incomes (less than $10,000 a year) – 69%, and smallest  – 9% – in households with an annual income of $200,000 and higher.


Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, May 31, 2013