Monday, October 16, 2006

Married Couples Now a Minority of U.S. Households

Yesterday's New York Times reported the results of an analysis of Census data finding that married couples now constitute a minority of American households:

Married couples, whose numbers have been declining for decades as a proportion of American households, have finally slipped into a minority, according to an analysis of new census figures by The New York Times.

The American Community Survey, released this month by the Census Bureau, found that 49.7 percent, or 55.2 million, of the nation’s 111.1 million households in 2005 were made up of married couples — with and without children — just shy of a majority and down from more than 52 percent five years earlier.

The numbers by no means suggests marriage is dead or necessarily that a tipping point has been reached. The total number of married couples is higher than ever, and most Americans eventually marry. But marriage has been facing more competition. A growing number of adults are spending more of their lives single or living unmarried with partners, and the potential social and economic implications are profound....

The census survey estimated that 5.2 million couples, a little more than 5 percent of households, were unmarried opposite-sex partners. An additional 413,000 households were male couples, and 363,000 were female couples. In all, nearly one in 10 couples were unmarried. (One in 20 households consisted of people living alone).

And the numbers of unmarried couples are growing. Since 2000, those identifying themselves as unmarried opposite-sex couples rose by about 14 percent, male couples by 24 percent and female couples by 12 percent.

The article notes that some couples choose unmarried cohabitation as a protest statement against laws prohibiting same-sex marriage:

A number of couples interviewed agreed that cohabiting was akin to taking a test drive and, given the scarcity of affordable apartments and homes, also a matter of convenience. Some said that pregnancy was the only thing that would prompt them to make a legal commitment soon. Others said they never intended to marry. A few of those couples said they were inspired by solidarity with gay and lesbian couples who cannot legally marry in most states.
Well, that's the most inventive argument against making a commitment I've seen!

Though the article doesn't mention it, marriage remains the central social institution in the family life cycle. Many young adults, upon breaking away from their parents home, aspire to marriage as a key step in personal development and independence (see John Santrock, Life Span Development, 9th edition, 2004).

Growing up, I always wanted to get married and be a father. Now I'm happily married with two fabulous young boys. Most people I've known have wanted to get married as well. But I do see changes in the institution of marriage reflecting changes in the broader social realm, especially trends in gender equality and the increase in the divorce rate. As the article notes, though, marriage remains the ultimate life goal for most people -- and that's a wonderful thing.

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