Do you ever wonder how everyone else is living? For example, if you live alone, do you wonder how many other people are living alone and what that’s like for them? And what about everyone else who is not living alone – who is in their households?
I spent years researching and writing about that for How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century. I wanted to get a first-hand look, so I asked people (most of whom I didn’t know) if they would invite me into their homes and tell me about their lives.
That way of understanding how people live is based on an in-depth look at a relatively small number of people. It is also important to get a sense of the very big picture – the statistics, for example, for an entire nation.
University of Maryland sociologist Philip N. Cohen has been tracking U.S. statistics for years for his popular textbook, The Family. He posted an update recently at his “Family Inequality” blog. Thanks to his willingness to share, you can now see what students in more than 300 schools will likely learn when they read the next edition of the book.
Do You Know, Or Can You Intuit, Trends Since 1900 in How People in the U.S. Have Been Living?
Before you look at the graph, though, you can, if you want, test your own knowledge or intuition. The graph will show the percentage of each of 5 different kinds of households, for every 10 years, from 1900 to 2010. Data for 2017 are also shown.
The 5 kinds of households are:
- People living alone (1-person households)
- Single-parent households (single parents and their kids)
- Married-couple households
- Extended family households (for example, several generations)
- People living together who are not family
Now see if you can match up those households with the trends over the 117 years. Which of the households evolved over time in the following ways?
- One of the types of households became more and more popular from 1900 until 1960. Then it became less and less popular.
- One of the types of households started out fairly rare for the first 30 years of the 20th century. Then it grew and grew and grew until it now accounts for nearly 1 out of every 3 households.
- Another kind of household has also become more and more commonplace since 1960. Percentagewise, though, its share of all households is not as big as the kind of household described in #2.
- This type of household was the second most commonplace living arrangement in the opening decades of the 20th Then it started to decline in popularity, hitting a low point in 1980. In recent decades, the percentage of all households of this type has grown some.
- This household type has always accounted for a small percentage of all households.
Here’s the graph. The household types corresponding to the 5 numbered trends are described below it.
- Number 1 describes married-couple households. In 1960, more than 60% of all households in the U.S. were married-couple households, a record high for the 117 years between 1900 and 2017. That means that in 1960, if you were to travel around the U.S. and knock on doors at random, more than 60% of the time, you would find a married couple in that household. By the time of the most recent data, 2017, married-couple households comprised just over 40% of all households.
The figure does not show married-with-children households separately from married-couple-only households, but other data indicate that those nuclear family households have now declined to under 20%. Although homes comprised of two parents and their children are the most sentimentalized, they are not even close to the most ordinary household in the U.S. today. Fewer than 1 in 5 fit that description.
- The type of households that was very rare in the opening decades of the 20th century, but then just kept growing, was households comprised of one person living alone. There are now more households like that than households comprised of mom, dad, and the kids (not shown in the graph).
- Single-parent households have become more and more commonplace since 1960. But during that entire time, there have always been more households comprised of just one person than of a single parent and their kids.
- In 1900 and for several decades after that, extended-family households were commonplace. Percentagewise, they were eclipsed only by married-couple households. Then things started to change, in part because aging parents were less interested in living with their grown children, and young adults were really uninterested in living with their parents. You know how the latter turned out – more young adults have been living with their parents in the last several decades.
- The household type that has never accounted for more than a few percentage points of all households: people living together who are not family. However, this could change. As more people stay single longer and value friends more, in the future, more may live with friends, and not just when they are young. Similarly, as people have fewer kids (or none at all), the possibility of living with family, over the life-course, declines.
Bottom Line: From Peak Conformity to Family Diversity
Although the 1960s have a reputation for being a time of nonconformity, the year 1960 marked a peak of conformity in how people in the U.S. were living. More than 3 out of every 5 households was a married-couple household. The other four household types were left to divide up the remaining 30-something percent of all households.
Now, diversity is the new normal. There is no one household type that accounts for more than half of all households. Married-couple households come closest, at more than 40%, but that’s only because those households with and without kids were added together. Solo dwellers take up a big proportion of all households, at nearly 30%. Extended-family households and single-parent households are not rare, either.
Today in the U.S., no matter what kind of household you are living in, there are probably millions of other people living in a household like yours. I hope that means that ways of living that were once stigmatized will shed that shadow. As more people live in more different kinds of ways, often by choice, we should all become less judgmental about such matters.