When young couples of the ’60s and ’70s thought about the future, their path forward was often clear: get married, move in, have babies. Two of the steps of that sequence swapped places decades ago—for the first time, in the mid-’90s, over half of all couples lived together before marriage. Now, researchers are finding that the order is again undergoing change: More and more Americans are first sharing a home, then having children. Marriage comes later, if at all.
A report published today by the Pew Research Center finds that 35 percent of all unmarried parents are now living together, up from 20 percent of unmarried parents in 1997. In 1968, the first time the government recorded data on this trend, less than 1 percent of unmarried parents cohabited. While the Pew study defines “cohabiting couples” as including either one or both of the child’s parents—meaning, a couple could be a parent plus his or her new partner—scholars I spoke with told me this trend is driven by an uptick in families in which both members of the couple are also the parents. (The report doesn’t specify how the data breaks down among gay and straight couples.)
More parents are likely choosing to live together without marrying because of the economy, said Arielle Kuperberg, a sociology professor who specializes in cohabitation at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Cohabiting parents, according to the Pew study, are significantly younger and less educated than both single parents and married parents. Many Millennials who came of age during or soon after the Great Recession are still struggling to find financial security. Even though they’re making, on average, more money than Millennials a few years ago, their net worth is still low, compared to past generations, largely because of their debt. “That’s just not the kind of stability that people want to have before they start making legal ties to each other,” said Kuperberg.