In 1790, the average household in the U.S. included nearly 6 people (5.79, to be exact). In 1850, it was 5.55. Every decade since then, the average size of the American household has shrunk. Until now. According to a recent Pew report, there were 2.63 people in a household, on average, in 2018. That represents an increase since 2010. It is just a small increase, but noteworthy since it is the first time it has happened in more than 16 decades.
Over the course of more than a century, our households have become less crowded for a variety of reasons. For one thing, women have been having many fewer children. Also, nuclear family living became more popular, replacing the extended family living which had dominated previously.
Living with Several Generations
By 1980, multi-generational living hit an all-time low. Only 12% of all households in the U.S. included at least 2 adult generations, or grandparents and their grandchildren under the age of 25. During the recession of 2007-2009, it was not surprising that family members from different generations, including adult children, began moving in with each other. But even after the recession ended, multi-generational living continued to increase. That continued growth is one of the reasons why households have gotten a bit more crowded this decade (since 2010).
Living with People Other Than a Spouse or Romantic Partner
Another interesting, and very 21st century, contribution to the increase in the average size of American households is the rise in what the Census Bureau calls “shared living quarters.” Shared household is “a household with at least one adult who is not the household head, the spouse or unmarried partner of the head, or an 18- to 24-year-old student.”
As examples of that other adult in shared households, the Pew report mentions “an adult child or parent of the householder, or simply a roommate or boarder.” See who did not get mentioned? The category, probably growing in significance, of friends. Increasingly, living with friends is not just something that young adults do. It is happening across the lifespan.
As a percentage of all households, shared households have grown from 17% in 2007 to 20% in 2019.
When I saw the heading of the Pew report, “The number of people in the average U.S. household is going up for the first time in over 160 years,” I immediately wondered if that meant that fewer people were living alone. The rise of solo living has been one of the most remarkable and consequential demographic changes in recent history, reaching beyond the U.S. to encompass many places around the globe.
A graph in the report shows the percentage of 1-person households, for 2010 and 2017, for different age groups. For the 55- to 64-year-olds, and the 65- to 74-year-olds, the proportion of 1-person households stayed the same across the decade. It decreased by one percentage point for the younger adults, and by 3 percentage points for the oldest adults. Overall, then, there was a small decrease in the percentage of all households that were comprised of one person, but not for every age group.
Next, I wanted to see the numbers separately for each year, and I wanted to see raw numbers, rather than percentages. Because the population is growing, and along with it, the number of households, it would be reasonable to expect most types of households to grow, too.
Here are the number of 1-person households, from 2010 through 2018, as reported in the Census Bureau Table HH-4, “Households by size: 1960 to Present”:
2011 33,020,000 (increase)
2012 33,188,000 (increase)
2013 33,570,000 (increase)
2014 34,185,000 (increase)
2015 34,866,000 (increase)
2016 35,388,000 (increase)
2017 35,252,000 (decrease)
2018 35,740,000 (increase)
In terms of raw numbers, 1-person households have increased every year this decade, except in 2017. Every year except that one, more and more people have been living alone. In the U.S. in 2018, there were 4.3 million more people living alone than in 2010.
Psychologically, I don’t know which is more consequential: whether there are more people like you, or more people like you as a proportion of all people (or all households).