Cohabitation’s neotraditional turn

A sudden, large jump in the number of cohabiting couples.

A new analysis from Rose Kreider at the Census Bureau shows a sudden, large jump in the number of (heterogamous) cohabiting couples, including an unusually large number of couples with only one member employed.

Defining, identifying and measuring unmarried cohabitation — an old hobby of mine — is messy business. The Census Bureau’s measurement approach has changed a few times, most recently in 2007, when they found a way to count people living as unmarried partners in someone else’s home. But there was no method change from 2009 to 2010, and the numbers show an unmistakable jump:

Source: My graph from the new report and historical trends.

As you can see, although two-earner couples are still the most common, more than half of the increase last year was in couples with only one earner — and the greatest proportional increase was among those with neither employed. Rose’s suspicion is that the recession — unemployment, foreclosures, insecurity, etc. — is squeezing more people into the decision to move in together.

The innovative way she came up with to look for that was to isolated those couples that were just formed — that is, where someone was living with no partner in one year but with a partner the next year. This shows an even larger jump in the proportion of couples in which only one member is employed. (And her statistical tests showed that the new couples were more likely to have only one earner than the already-existing couples.)

Some cohabitation looks like carefree, decadent, Swedish-style have-it-all-ism. But in the U.S. it’s often about people making ends meet. These relationships are notoriously unstable. Past experience suggests that, when cohabitors marry, they are more likely to divorce — unless they were engaged at the point they moved in together.

So is it good news or bad news? At the extremes, these financial-crisis cohabs might be both good survival strategies and/or relationship time-bombs. In any event, by my calculations, it will be seen as bad news by approximately 38% of poll-participating Americans.

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