Picturing the American Family Today

Kristine Barseghyan, Ph.D. (ABD) Social Sciences

Since the 1950s – the decade of all-time highest marriage rates, youngest families and “Mrs.” degrees – the social institutions of marriage and family in the United States have changed dramatically. The marriage rate dropped from 143 to 31 in 2012, and today less than half of women (47.1 percent) are married. In contrast, the proportion of divorced or separated women has significantly increased (14 percent). The share of married men is slightly higher (50.6 percent), and the share of divorced or separated men is lower (11 percent).

Several studies argue that it is too early to proclaim the death of American family. Firstly, people are not giving up on marriage, they are simply waiting longer to tie the knot. Today, the average age of getting married is historically high for men and women: 28.9 and 27 years of age respectively. Therefore, since the rate of marriage is calculated by the percentage of women over 15 getting married each year, the marriage rate automatically falls as the average age of marriage goes up.[i]

Secondly, cohabitation has become a new form of living arrangement for those who do not want to marry formally but still want to live as a family couple. Simultaneously with marriage decrease, the cohabitation rate has increased significantly from less than half a million couples in 1960 to 7.5 million couples in 2010.[ii] Studies show that marriages and cohabiting relationships show similar results over time in terms of well-being, health and social ties.[iii]

Nevertheless, despite the increasing popularity of late marriage and cohabitation, the iconic image of the American family continues to break apart. The fact that families have become smaller in size and constitute a smaller share of all households is visible with naked eyes. Before the 1950s, every 4 out of 5 households were married couples. The ratio of married couples to total households dropped gradually from 78 percent in 1950, 74 percent in 1964, 64 percent in 1977, and 56 percent in 1989. In 2012, they comprised 48 percent and constituted a minority (Chart 1).


Living alone or single parenting is already a norm that offsets the shrinking number of married households with children. With the current rate of divorces, single-parent households show slow but steady growth. In 2012, only 19.3 percent of households with children under 18 years were married couples. The rest of households with children were single-father families (2.3 percent) and single-mother families (7.3 percent). Most notably, the number of single-father households has increased almost nine fold since the 1960s – from less than 300,000 to more than 2.6 million. Compared to single mothers, single fathers usually have higher income, are somewhat less educated, older and more likely to be white.[iv]

Marriage and divorce rates as well as family type vary significantly across race and ethnic groups. Eighty percent of Asian and non-Hispanic White family households are married couple households, while the corresponding proportion among Hispanic and Black householders is smaller: 62 percent and 44 percent, respectively. Black children (55 percent) and Hispanic children (31 percent) are more likely to live with one parent than non-Hispanic White children (21 percent) or Asian children (13 percent).[v]

Underlying cultural factors and distinct regional differences also impact marriage and divorce rates. The Northeast has the lowest marriage and divorce rates for both men and women due to higher education rates. Southern states, such as Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Texas, where people tend to marry younger and have less education, have the highest rates of marriage and divorce (Map 1).[vi]


Okay. Let us stop here with the household composition, and examine the change in gender roles: how has the family role distribution changed over time?

As in public life, the family roles of men and women are converging as well. Fathers are doing more housework and childcare, mothers more paid work outside the home and an equal share of both say they wish they could be at home raising their children rather than working. Chart 2 shows how closely men and women now see their roles in providing emotional support to children – a role traditionally ascribed to women. Likewise, they both carry a disciplinary role, which was traditionally the father’s job.

Though traditional family roles have gone through drastic changes, neither of them has overtaken the other in their “traditional”realms.[vii] Income providing or breadwinning is still father’s job. Fathers are more inclined to work full time than moms and prefer high-paying jobs over jobs with flexible schedule. While fathers spend, on average, 11 working hours weekly more than mothers, mothers spend 12 more hours than fathers on housework and childcare.[viii]


Americans view the extensive changes in family arrangements of the past half century with a mixture of acceptance and discomfort. Forty-three percent of people disapprove cohabitations and unmarried couples having children, despite the growing number of both (Chart 3). The same number of people disapprove same-sex couples raising children.

Chart 3 shows a cluster of people being rather conservative in their definition of family and marriage. While they are more comfortable with women with young children working or with marriage of people from different races, what is crucial for them is the formal status of being married and the traditional composition of a family: a father, a mother and a child. All other variations that would alter the traditional family structure such as single parenting or same-sex parenting are unacceptable.


However, 43 percent make a minority. For most people, the definition of family is not that rigid. Before writing this article, I put a small poll in one of Facebook’s “mamas’” groups with more than 14,000 members. My question was how members would describe the American family today in one word, and was naïve enough to offer some options like “marriage,” “children,” “support” and “security.” The most popular answer was “diverse”. The question is, however, to what extent we can stretch the definition of what we call a family to incorporate all possible diversities and still keep the meaning?


[i] The Huffington Post, “Divorced Women In America On The Rise, According To New Research,” 22 July, 2013;  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/22/divorced-women_n_3636650.html

[ii] Rose Kreider, “Increase in Opposite-sex Cohabiting Couples from 2009 to 2010 in the Annual Social and Economic Supplement to the Current Population Survey”, The Census Bureau, 15 September, 2010; http://www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/Inc-Opp-sex-2009-to-2010.pdf

[iii] Cheryl Wetzstein, “U.S. marriage rate continues decline; men tie knot later ,” The Washington Times, 5 February 2012; http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2012/feb/5/us-marriage-rate-continues-decline-men-tie-knot-la/?page=all

[iv] Gretchen Livingston, “The Rise of Single Fathers”, Pew Research Center, July 2, 2013; http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2013/07/02/the-rise-of-single-fathers/

[v] U.S. Census Bureau, “About Three in Four Parents Living with Children are Married, Census Bureau Reports”, 25 November 2013; http://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/families_households/cb13-199.html

[vi] Sharon Jayson, “Marriage, divorce rates higher in the South, lower in Northeast”, USA Today, 24 August 2011; http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/health/wellness/marriage/story/2011-08-25/Marriage-divorce-rates-higher-in-the-South-lower-in-Northeast/50126268/1

[vii] Kim Parker and Wendy Wang, “Modern Parenthood”, by Pew Research Center, March 14, 2013; http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2013/03/14/modern-parenthood-roles-of-moms-and-dads-converge-as-they-balance-work-and-family/

[viii] Kim Parker and Wendy Wang, “Modern Parenthood”, by Pew Research Center, March 14, 2013; http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2013/03/14/modern-parenthood-roles-of-moms-and-dads-converge-as-they-balance-work-and-family/

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About Kristine Barseghyan

Kristine Barseghyan, Ph.D. (ABD) Social Sciences

Kristine has a Ph.D. in Social Sciences (ABD), and works as a Democratic Governance and International Development Consultant.

From 2004 to 2012, she worked as program officer for United Nations Development Programme and United States International Agency for International Development. Since 2013, she  is a freelance consultant for international development organizations.

Other posts by Kristine Barseghyan:

One thought on “Picturing the American Family Today”

  1. Yes, where are the good examples for us all to follow? I grew up in the shadow of the Great Depression, and WW II. All media had to have an idealistic bent. Now, it’s all, or most full of horrible examples! Tell that this doesn’t pull us all down!

    Old Uncle Jim,
    Just a dreamer!
    PS. Keep up the good work.
    Aloha from Kailua, Oahu.
    When are you coming to Hawaii for a visit? I’d love to meet you!

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