Three mornings a week, when Becky Leung gets ready for work, her boyfriend is just getting home from his overnight job. When her mother drops hints about her twin sister’s marriage, she laughs it off. And when she thinks about getting married herself, she worries first about her career.
Leung, 27, cohabits in a Portland, Oregon, townhouse with her boyfriend, but has no plans yet to wed, a reflection of the broader cultural shift in the US away from the traditional definition of what it means to be a household.
Data released on Thursday by the US Census Bureau shows married couples have found themselves in a new position: They are no longer the majority.
It is a trend that has been creeping along for decades, but in last year’s census, married couples represented 48 percent of all households. That is down from 52 percent in the last census and, for the first time in US history, puts households led by married couples as a plurality.
“I see a lot of people not having the typical eight-to-five job, or couples where one person is employed and one isn’t. There’s other priorities before marriage,” Leung said.
The flip in last year’s census happened in 32 states. In another seven states, less than 51 percent of households were helmed by married couples.
The reason, said Portland State University demographer Charles Rynerson, is twofold: The fast-growing older population is more likely to be divorced or widowed later in life and 20-somethings are putting off their nuptials for longer stretches.
“People in their 20s are postponing marriage for many reasons, including money,” Rynerson said. “We also have an aging population, so there’s more people living alone.”
Fears of not being able to hang onto a job, a widening labor market for women and a shift away from having kids at a young age have all proved to be a disincentive for people in their 20s and early 30s to join the ranks of the married.
Leung is indicative of that trend. She has a marketing job in a trendy city, writes a personal blog on living a gluten-free lifestyle and has plans to get married — eventually.
“I think a lot of people make a mistake of saying, I’ve got a good job, I’m stable, I’m ready to take the next step,” Leung said. “You never know what happens down the road. That’s the whole purpose of dating. You’re not there to just have fun.”
The median age for first marriages has climbed steadily since the 1960s, when men got married at about 23 years old and women at 20. Now, men are waiting until they are 28 and women are holding off until 26.
“Some of that is people coupling, but not being married,” Rynerson said. “There are not nearly as many people in their 20s who are married as in previous generations.”
The data supports that, as the US Census Bureau reported last year that opposite-sex unmarried couples living together jumped 13 percent from 2009 to 7.5 million.
Americans are also living longer, with an average life expectancy of 78 years, nearly a decade longer than in the 1960s.
To reflect the changing attitudes on marriage, the US Census Bureau has broadened the definition of family this year to include unmarried couples, such as same-sex partners, as well as foster children who are not related by blood or adoption.
And attitudes on marriage are changing, too. About 39 percent of Americans say marriage is becoming obsolete, according to a Pew Research Center study published in November last year, up from 28 percent in 1978.