Boy holding parent's hand


How Families in the U.S. are Changing

Family is a persistent social institution, but it does change. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath discusses a few growing trends in family structure.

Family is a social institution— an organized patterns of groups and norms that meets some need in society. Family meets the needs of socializing children, for example. Family persists as a social institution but does change over time. Before you read the rest of this post, reflect for a moment on the ways in which you believe family has changed over time. Now, let’s consider a few ways in which families are changing.


Cohabitation refers to living together as though married, but without legal or religious sanctioning. Cohabiting has become more socially acceptable and is an increasingly common living arrangement. According to Manning and Stykes (2013:1), “[t]he percentage of women who have ever cohabited has almost doubled over the past 25 years.” Cohabitation is not necessarily replacing marriage, but is often a step before marriage. “[O]ver two-thirds (69%) of women who first married in the last decade cohabited prior to marriage” (Manning and Stykes 2013:2). So, if you have ever cohabitated, you are part of the statistical norm.

Remaining Single Longer

According to Pew Research Center, “[i]n 2012, one-in-five adults ages 25 and older (about 42 million people) had never been married. … In 1960, only about one-in-ten adults (9%) in that age range had never been married. Men are more likely than women to have never been married (23% vs. 17% in 2012)” (Wang and Parker 2014). Of course, part of the explanation for this trend is that Americans are waiting to get married, with some cohabiting first. Relatedly, the average age at first marriage for women is 27 and for men is 29 (Wang and Parker 2014). While many young adults will eventually marry, “[a]ccording to Pew Research projections based on census data, when today’s young adults reach their mid-40s to mid-50s, a record high share (25%) is likely to have never been married” (Wang and Parker 2014). Have you remained single? Do you intend to remain single or are you part of the group that is simply delaying marriage until an older age compared to the past?

Unmarried Parents

In 2013, 40.6 percent of all births were to unmarried women (Martin et al. 2015). This means that a majority of births still happen to married parents. Further, a number of these births to unmarried women happen in the context of a cohabiting relationship. The majority of households with children continue to be headed by two married parents (though one parent may be a step-parent). However, in 1960 this parenting arrangement covered 92 percent of households with children (Livingston 2013). Today, this household arrangement covers 67 percent of households with children (Livingston 2013). While the majority of children are born to married or cohabiting parents, the number of children born to unmarried women has increased. Further, a growing share of single parent headed households are headed by fathers. In 2013, the highest percentage of single-father households was recorded. Single-father households make up 8 percent of households and make up 24 percent of single-parent households (Livingston 2013). Interestingly, “[s]ingle fathers are more likely than single mothers to be living with a cohabiting partner (41% versus 16%)” (Livingston 2013). What was your household like? Were your parents married, cohabiting, or unmarried? What about your own household? Does your own household reflect these trends?

Living with Mom & Dad

The last trend to discuss is about remaining living with one’s parents. Women aged 18-34 are living with their parents or other family at rates not seen since the 1940s. Over a third (36.4 percent) of women aged 18-34 are living with their parents, aunts or uncles, or other non-spouse family member (Fry 2015). Men, too, are also increasingly likely to have this household arrangement though their rates have not returned to 1940s levels, with 42.8 percent of men in this age group living with parents or other family (Fry 2015). Do you live with parents or other family members? Do you intend to continue living with your family or other family members after you graduate from college?

Families can change and they have. These changes do not have to be permanent and may actually reflect earlier trends (e.g., living with one’s parents as an adult).

Dig Deeper:

  1. Summarize the four trends mentioned in this article. What is the trend? Is it increasing, decreasing, or remaining constant?
  2. Of the four trends mentioned in this article, how might they be related to one another? So for instance, how might unmarried parenthood be related to living with one’s own parents as an adult? Pick two of the trends and discuss how they might be related to one another?
  3. Many of the statistics in this post come from PEW Research. Visit PEW Research Center Social and Demographic Trends. Select an article from PEW Research to share with the class. If your last name begins with A-K, select an article from 2015. If your last name begins with L-R, select an article from 2014. If your last name begins with S-Z, select an article from 2013. Be prepared to discuss your article with your classmates.
  4. Draw your own conclusion. The author points out trends regarding cohabitation, remaining single, becoming and unmarried parent, and living with parents as a young adult. Choose one of these trends and do more research on the trend. What are the implications for the individual, the family unit, and society at large regarding this trend?

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