What Does the Rising Cohabitation Rate Mean for America?
by David Gibson
The United States currently is witnessing a dramatic rise in the percentage of couples whose first union is not a marriage but cohabitation, a new federal government report confirms.
Marriage was the first union for just 23 percent of women between the ages of 15 and 44 during the period from 2006 to 2010, according to the National Center for Health Statistics April 4 report. It focuses principally on women’s experiences.
Nearly half of women today, 48 percent, choose cohabitation as their first union, the NCHS report indicates. That represents a 14 percent increase since 1995.
The report shows that while cohabiting couples often marry at some point, cohabitations frequently dissolve within five years or much less time. “Cohabitations typically are short-lived,” the report observes, though it stresses that cohabitations last somewhat longer now than 10 years ago.
Coincidentally, a second new report, this one released March 15, also looks closely at cohabitation, examining important realities of this expanding lifestyle within the context of America’s rising marriage age.
Titled ““Knot Yet: The Benefits and Costs of Delayed Marriage in America,” it was co-sponsored by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, and the Relate Institute.
“One of our most startling findings,” the report’s authors state, “is that today’s young people of all education levels are entering their first coresidential relationships at about the same age as in the past; it’s just that now they are far more likely to be ‘living together’ than married.”
In each of these two new reports, America’s current and well-documented marriage divide, which makes the benefits of marriage much more accessible to the college educated, is shown to play a large role in shaping cohabitation patterns.
Each report also shows that childbearing has become much more common than the general public may realize among cohabiting couples.
I doubt many will be surprised to learn from the new government report that America’s cohabitation rate is rising rapidly. But other key points involving the marriage divide and childbearing surely deserve attention. The report is titled “First Premarital Cohabitation in the United States: 2006-2010 National Survey of Family Growth.”
Researchers want to know “whether cohabitation serves primarily as a step toward marriage … or as an alternative to marriage,” the NCHS report explains. In this context, it notes that “transitions to marriage are more likely for cohabiting women with higher levels of education and income than for cohabiting women of lower socioeconomic status.”
Seventy percent of women “with less than a high school diploma cohabited as a first union, compared with 47 percent of women with a bachelor’s degree or higher,” according to the report.
And in today’s America “cohabitation has become a more frequent site for childbearing,” the report points out. It calls cohabitation “a common part of family formation,” serving “both as a step toward marriage and as an alternative to marriage.”
It adds that “childbearing outside of marriage continues to increase,” and “about one-half of nonmarital births occur to cohabiting women.”
However, the report found that “alongside the increase in fertility within cohabiting unions over the past decade was a decrease in the probability of marriage among women who became pregnant in a cohabiting union.”
Not surprisingly, the marriage divide makes its presence known here. “Probabilities of a pregnancy were higher among women who were under age 20 when they began cohabiting, among foreign-born Hispanic women and among women with less than a high school diploma.”
Again, the probability that a couple would marry if a pregnancy occurred in a first cohabiting union and do so before the child’s birth “was three times higher for women with a bachelor’s degree or higher (45 percent) than for those with less than a high school diploma,” the report says.
“Knot Yet” Report
“One of the most important social developments of our time is the recent rise in age at first marriage, which now stands at 27 for women and 29 for men,” says the “Knot Yet” report co-sponsored by the National Marriage Project.
The report holds that “delayed marriage in America has helped to bring the divorce rate down since 1980 and increased the economic fortunes of college-educated women.”
However, it adds, “another important consequence of delayed marriage is that most Americans without college degrees now have their first child before they marry. By contrast, the vast majority of college-educated men and women still put childbearing after marriage.”
A concern that cohabiting relationships “often don’t last” is expressed in the report. It calls attention, for example, to the many “Middle America” women, those with a high school diploma and perhaps some college education, but not a four-year degree. Often they live “with their child’s father at the time they give birth,” and often these relationships “don’t last,” it says.
While large numbers of “men and women have been postponing marriage to their late 20s and beyond, they have not put off childbearing at the same pace,” the report shows. It reports that for women overall, “the median age at first birth (25.7)” now is lower than the “median age at first marriage (26.5).”
This is not to say that a majority of children now are born outside marriage, the report makes clear. But “as marriage gets delayed to later ages, the odds of having a child outside of marriage increase.”
The “Knot Yet” report finds the nation at “a tipping point, on the verge of moving into a new demographic reality” in which a majority of first births could precede marriage.
About the author
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.