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How Cohabitation Became the Hottest Life Strategy in Town

Cohabitation is up sharply. It may be a sign that many are re-thinking marriage.

Cohabitation is Changing
Source: CC0

A new U.S. Census Bureau report shows that the number of unmarried partners living together has almost tripled in the past two decades, from 6 million to 17 million. With this rise comes a change in their profile. The U.S. Census also found that cohabitators are now more educated and are more likely to earn higher wages. They are also older now and are more racially diverse.

Why Do People Choose Cohabitation?

Cohabitation is considered a midpoint category between singlehood and marriage. On one side, cohabitating is close to singlehood because it is also based, at least in part, on the increasing frustration and disillusionment with the institution of marriage. Fear of marital commitment and aversion to the risk of divorce, for example, have contributed to the number of couples choosing to cohabitate for significant periods of time without getting married.

On the other side, cohabitation has moved closer to marriage both socially and legally, with common marriage laws providing similar rights to cohabitators as those granted to couples in formal marriages in many places, such as the United States, Australia, and Europe.

U.S. Census
Living arrangements of 25-34 years old Americans
Source: U.S. Census

In 1998, for example, the House of Representatives in the Netherlands was one of the first parliaments to formally recognize registered cohabitation through legislation. At the time, it was considered a policy breakthrough.

An evaluation of this move among 40 interviewees showed that participants agreed with the risk-reduction strategy whereby cohabitation is less binding and permanent than marriage and allows more flexibility and independence. In other words, cohabitation, as a risk-reduction relationship strategy, has displaced marriage in some contexts.

In this sense, cohabitation has an immediate impact on the share of singles in the population. Since the dissolution of cohabitation is easier and more common than marriage dissolution, it alleviates relationship deterrents and the associated risks. Cohabitation provides freedom to move in and out of sequential relationships while staying unattached between them. Thus, the acceptance of cohabitation in liberal countries increases the number of cohabitators and uncoupled individuals alike. As such, a higher proportion of people are expected to spend longer periods of time as singles, both before and after cohabitation.

The Changing Landscape of Cohabitation

So what does cohabitation look like today? It turns out that cohabitation is rapidly changing its face. For example, in terms of education, just 16 percent of unmarried partners had a bachelor’s degree or higher in 1996 compared to 28 percent in 2017.

Cohabiting couples are also significantly older in 2017 compared to 1996. In 1996, only 2 percent of partners in cohabiting households were ages 65 or older; by 2017, that had tripled to 6 percent. In addition, although half of the cohabitators are younger than 35, an increasing number of Americans ages 50 and older cohabit in 2017. A Pew Research Center analysis shows that from 2007 to 2016, the number of cohabiting adults ages 50 and older grew by 75 percent. This increase is faster than that of any other age group in this time period.

In addition, cohabiting partners in interracial relationships increased from 6 percent to 10 percent from 1996 to 2017. Among cohabiting U.S. adults, members of Generation Y and Generation X are particularly likely to cohabit with someone of a different race or ethnicity. Another Pew Research Center analysis shows that around 20 percent of each group are cohabitators. The rates are significantly lower among cohabiting Baby Boomers (13 percent) and members of the Silent Generation (9 percent).

Finally, unmarried partners now also earn more, on average. The proportion making less than $30,000 annually (in 2017 dollars) dipped from 64 percent in 1996 to 53 percent in 2017. In addition, among the college-educated, two-earner couples were more prevalent among cohabitators (78 percent) than married adults (67 percent). This explains why, among college-educated adults, the median-adjusted household income of cohabitators exceeded that of married adults.

What Can be Concluded

Many think (and social science research repeatedly, and sometimes wrongly, shows) that marriage is associated with a variety of benefits for married individuals. But even if this might be true, the landscape is changing; thus, we must measure these benefits and other indicators again.

The change in public attitude toward marriage affects not only cohabiting people, but also single people that feel much less pressure to marry or to couple up. In recent decades, marriage rates have declined—and while this in and of itself is not positive or negative, the rising acceptance of alternative forms of human interactions is certainly welcome. In particular, the rise of cohabitation suggests that being unmarried has become increasingly accepted by many social and demographic groups.


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