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Pew study finds a change in US family structure since 1970

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J-P Mauro - published on 09/22/23

More Americans than ever are raising children while unmarried, or cohabitatating without children, while fewer are considering marriage at all.

A new report from Pew Research Center is examining the American family and how it’s changed since the mid-20th century. Among their findings, Pew found Americans have made a marked departure from the traditional family structure, while their views of marriage and family have turned towards the pessimistic. 

Comparing recent data taken in 2021 to surveys of 1970, Pew discovered that the share of Americans aged 25-49 who are married with children has fallen by 30%, from 67% in 1970 to 37% in 2021. Along with this drop in adults living with their spouses and kids, it was observed that the portion of unmarried parents raising children has risen. The portion of Americans who are unmarried with children rose from 4% to 6% in the last 5 decades, while unmarried couples who cohabitate with children rose from virtually 0% to 5%. 

Furthermore, the survey also found that the percentage of married couples who do not have children has also risen by 3% since 1970, to 21%; however, this figure was highest in 1990, at 23%. Unmarried couples cohabitating without children is another living arrangement that virtually did not exist in 1970, but today it accounts for 7% of Americans. Young married couples living with older relatives have also more than doubled, from 5% in 1970 to 11% in 2021. 

Pew listed a variety of factors that could explain the shift in marriage and family life habits of Americans, not least of which is that adults aged 18 and older are getting married later in life. In 1970, 69% of adults (18+) had been married while only 17% of the population had never been in a marriage. Now, however, a solid half (50%) of Americans are or have been married, while 31% have not been married and have no prospects for marriage. 

Another factor at work is changing fertility patterns, including from the usage of oral contraceptives, which has surged in popularity since the 70s. The relationship between marriage and parenthood has also shifted, making single motherhood a much more socially acceptable arrangement. Pew pointed to a separate report, which found that 1 in 4 US parents are unmarried

Pew also noted a rise in interracial or interethnic marriages (from 4% to 16% in 2021). Pew also looked at the numbers since the legalization of same-sex marriage in the US in 2015. It is estimated that 1% of all American married couples are same-sex.

Education was also found to play a role in family structure, with those who have attained a bachelor’s degree much more likely to be married than those with only a high school diploma. In the 1970s those with less education were just as likely to be married as those who completed college. 

While those with higher education levels were shown to be more likely to get married, they are less likely to have kids. On the other side, those of lower education levels generally have more kids. However, it should be noted that the average number of children per couple has fallen across the board. Those with less than high school level education fell from 3.6 children per household to 2.4, while college educated couples have fallen from 2.5 to 1.8.

Read the full report at Pew Research Center.

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