More than a quarter of American households are made up of people living alone as the ranks of senior citizens swell and younger Americans continue to delay life milestones that previous generations reached earlier in life.
There were 37 million one-person households in the United States in 2021, the U.S. Census Bureau reported this week, representing 28 percent of all households across the country and 15 percent of the overall population.
In 1960, just 13 percent of households were occupied by just one person. In the past decade, the number of Americans living alone jumped by 4 million.
Just half of American adults, 50 percent, are living with a spouse, down from 52 percent a decade ago. At the same time, the share of Americans living with an unmarried partner is rising — today, 8 percent of Americans over the age of 18 live with a partner to whom they are not wedded, almost double the 4.1 percent rate the Census Bureau measured in 2001.
Those two figures continue a long-term trend in which Americans delay marriage to later in life. When the Census Bureau first analyzed marriage data in 1947, the median man got married at 23.7 years old, and the median woman wed for the first time at age 20.5.
Today, the median age for a man when he first gets married is 30.4 years old, while the median woman is 28.6 years old. Today, 34 percent of all Americans over the age of 15 have never been married, up from 23 percent in 1950.
The data are symptoms of a population that is making critical life decisions at later ages than earlier generations at the same age. The evidence is most evident in birth rates, which have been dropping steadily for decades — and more precipitously in recent years, a phenomenon demographers call the baby bust.
“Both more young adults living alone and an increasing age at first marriage are likely to diminish the number of births. Of course, not all births occur in marriage, but the increase in young adults living alone and delayed marriage reflect changing societal attitudes about families and children,” said Kenneth Johnson, senior demographer at the University of New Hampshire's Carsey School.
The number of American women who gave birth in 2020, a year in which many decisions to have or grow a family may have been influenced in part by the pandemic, fell at the steepest rate over the previous year since 1973, according to the National Center for Health Statistics at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That drop came even though there are more women of childbearing age in the population than there were a decade ago, Johnson said.
But even before the pandemic, birth rates were falling off a cliff: Birth rates were lower in every month of 2020 — including January and February, before the pandemic enforced lockdowns, and in subsequent months, when pregnancies begun long before the coronavirus dominated news headlines — compared to 2019.
The trend has continued this year: Births are down another 5 percent over the first three months of 2021 from the already record low of 2020.
Just over 3.6 million births took place in 2020, about 700,000 fewer births than occurred in 2007, the year American births reached a peak.
The intervening years included the Great Recession, which set the millennial generation well behind their predecessors in things like savings, debt and accumulated wealth — all of which tend to be precursors to decisions about whether to buy a home, get married or begin a family.
Johnson, an expert on the plunging birth rate, estimates that the fertility declines that began in the midst of the Great Recession have added up to about 7.6 million fewer births than might have been expected over the same number of years at a previous point in American history.
Another indication of the delayed life decisions is the increasing number of younger people living with their parents. The 2021 figures show 11.2 percent of adults over the age of 18 still live with their parents, up from 10 percent in 2001 and 10.6 percent in 2011.