Married Households a Minority
For the first time, households headed by married couples are a minority.
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.
Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said gay couples were undercounted because many gay people were reluctant to disclose their sexual orientation. But he said that inhibition seemed to be fading. “I would say the increase is due to people feeling more comfortable disclosing that they are gay or lesbian and living with a partner,” he said.
The survey revealed wide disparities in household composition by place. The proportion of married couples ranged from more than 69 percent in Utah County, Utah, which includes Provo, to 26 percent in Manhattan, which has a smaller share of married couples than almost anyplace in the country. But Manhattan registered a 1.2 percent increase in married couples since 2000, in contrast to the rest of New York City and many other places.
This is not surprising and mirrors trends we’ve seen in Western Europe. The combination of delayed adulthood owing to ever-expanding need for education, women in the workforce as career seekers rather than just earning a paycheck until marriage, the loss of stigma to divorce and homosexuality, and other factors mean that marriage happens latter in life and is often intermittent.
My wife and I each headed our own household for well over a decade before getting married. I was just shy of my 40th birthday and she had just turned 35. While that’s late for a first marriage even today, it’s not particularly unusual. The trend is to delay marriage until both careers are underway and the couple is able to “afford” children while maintaining all the comforts of the modern middle class lifestyle.
Interestingly, the dynamic may well shift in the other direction in a few years once gay marriage becomes more widely available. There were 776,000 same-sex couples in this survey which, given the remaining stigma against homosexuality in many rural areas, is almost certainly a significant undercount.