This Population Bulletin Update is a follow-up to PRB's 2010 Population Bulletin, "U.S. Economic and Social Trends Since 2000," and provides new data and analysis on the ongoing impact of the Great Recession on unemployment, poverty, housing, education, the status of young adults, and the birth rate in the United States.

More Young Adults in U.S. Postponing Marriage, Living at Home, Disconnected From Work and School

by Mark Mather

(December 2011) The U.S. recession affected people across age groups, from young adults to baby boomers nearing retirement age. However, in terms of job losses, young adults were disproportionately affected by the economic downturn, and continue to experience higher rates of unemployment relative to those in older age groups. In October 2011, the unemployment rate for those ages 16 to 24 was 16 percent, more than twice the rate for those ages 35 and older (see Figure 1). Among those ages 25 to 34—prime ages to get a job and start a family—the unemployment rate was more than 9 percent.1 Young adults are also more likely to have experienced long-term unemployment for six months or more during the recession, compared with those in older age groups.2


Figure 1
U.S. Unemployment Rate by Age Group, 2000-2011

Note: Unadjusted rates as of October of each year. Estimates are based on a survey of the population and are subject to both sampling and nonsampling error.
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.


It is difficult to link these macroeconomic trends to changes in marriage and family patterns based on data from national surveys. However, in European countries, researchers have found that high rates of unemployment—and low levels of economic security—are strongly associated with declines in family formation and fertility among young adults.3 Thus, it is likely that young adults in the United States are also adopting new attitudes toward marriage and families in response to their declining economic opportunities.

Marriage Decline, Marriage Gap

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau suggest that more young couples are delaying marriage or foregoing matrimony altogether, possibly as an adaptive response to the economic downturn. Between 2000 and 2011, the share of young adults ages 25 to 34 who are married dropped 9 percentage points, from 55 percent to 46 percent, according to data from the Current Population Survey (CPS) (see Figure 2). During the same period, the percentage who have never been married increased sharply, from 35 percent to 46 percent, so that the proportion of young adults who have never been married is now roughly equal to the proportion who are married. Marriage has declined for several decades, but accelerated with the onset of the recession. Since 2007, the proportion of young adults who are married has declined in every state except for Alaska, Montana, and Wyoming.4


Figure 2
Marital Status Among young Adults Ages 25-34, 2000-2011

Note: Currently married includes those with absent spouses but not those who are separated. Estimates are based on a survey of the population and are subject to both sampling and nonsampling error.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey.


Marriage rates have fallen among all racial/ethnic groups, and for both men and women. However, trends in marriage have diverged among groups with different levels of education. CPS data show that those with only a high school diploma (or less) have experienced a steep, steady decline in marriage during the past decade—an 11 percentage point drop since 2000. In contrast, the marriage rate for those with at least a bachelor's degree held fairly steady before falling from 2009-2011, and remains at a relatively high level. This divergence has led to a growing "marriage gap" between those at different ends of the educational scale.5 Today, only 43 percent of young adults with a high school diploma or less are married, compared with 51 percent of those with at least a bachelor’s degree.

The marriage gap used to be reversed. Prior to the 1990s, marriage rates were higher among those with a high school diploma or less than among those with a four-year college education. The college-educated were more likely to postpone marriage compared with those in less-educated groups. Marriage patterns today look very different, with higher proportions of young, highly educated adults entering formal unions, and a sharp drop in marriage among those with less education.

Reasons for the Decline in Marriage

Marriage used to be a near-universal phenomenon in the United States. Estimates from the mid-1960s show marriage levels of 80 percent or more among young adults ages 25 to 34. Starting in the 1970s, several factors contributed to a steady decline in marriage, including rising divorce rates, an increase in women's educational attainment and labor force participation, and a rise in cohabitation as an alternative or precursor to marriage. The sharp decline in marriage has been accompanied by a rapid increase in the number of cohabiting couples. Cohabitation has been on the rise for several decades, but the Census Bureau links the recent increase in cohabiting couples to rising unemployment rates and growing economic uncertainty, especially among young men.6 Given the scope of the recent recession, many more couples are likely to choose cohabitation over marriage in the coming years.

Another factor contributing to the decline in marriage rates, especially for less-educated groups, is the rise in women's earnings relative to men. Family demographers point out that as women's wages have increased, fewer women rely on a spouse or partner to provide a weekly paycheck. Women now outnumber men in U.S. colleges, and a recent report by the Pew Research Center showed that there is a rapidly growing number of women who outearn their husbands.7 Women's higher earning capacity and the declining economic prospects of young men without a college degree are key factors contributing to the decline in marriage in recent years.8 The recession has exacerbated this trend because of its disproportionate impact on men with fewer job skills and less education.9

Despite the rising number of women in the labor force, young women are still much more likely to be married (51 percent) compared with their male counterparts (42 percent)—a difference that reflects women's earlier average age at marriage. However, as women’s earnings increase relative to men’s, we may see a corresponding increase in women’s age at marriage.

Sharp Increase in Young Men Living at Home

Declines in marriage have been accompanied by an increase in young adults—especially men—returning or remaining in their parents' homes. Between 2007 and 2011, the number of young adults ages 25 to 34 living at home rose from 4.7 million to 5.9 million, contributing to an increase in "doubled-up" households since the onset of the recession.10

These national numbers mask an important gender difference. Since 2007, the share of young men living at home has increased sharply, from 14.2 percent to 18.6 percent, while the share of women living with their parents has remained fairly steady, at around 10 percent.11 The share of young men living at home has reached its highest level since the Census Bureau first starting tracking the measure in 1960. In 2000, the gap between men and women living at home was relatively small, at 4.5 percentage points, and since 1960, the gender gap had never exceeded 7 percentage points. But by 2011, the difference between men's and women's rates had grown to 8.9 percentage points, the largest gender gap in at least 50 years. Young men are now nearly twice as likely as women to live with their parents.


Figure 3
Share of Men and Women Ages 25-34 Living With Their Parents, 2000-2011

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey.


What explains this gender gap? For decades, young men have been more likely to live with their parents than young women. Researchers have linked this gender difference to women's earlier age at marriage, although cultural and economic factors also play a role.12 Employed college graduates are much less likely to live at home compared with those who are unemployed with no education beyond high school.13 In 2011, 22 percent of young men living at home were unemployed and 52 percent had never attended college.14 For men in other living arrangements, 9 percent were unemployed and 41 percent had never gone to college.

From these figures, it's clear that men's economic prospects play an important role in their decision to leave the nest. With fewer jobs available, it is likely that more young men are choosing to stay or move back home with their parents to save on housing and other costs. Young adults living at home rely heavily on their parents' income. The official poverty rate for young adults living with their parents is 8 percent, but if only the child's income is considered, the poverty rate rises to 45 percent.15

Women exhibit a different pattern, with similar levels of employment and education among those living inside and outside their parents' homes. About 12 percent of women living at home were unemployed while 39 percent had never attended college. For those in other living arrangements, 8 percent were unemployed and 32 percent had not gone to college. The similar profile of the two groups suggests that non-economic factors may play a more important role in women's decisions to live with their parents, compared with their male counterparts. And this pattern may help explain why the trend line for women remained flat during the recent recession, while so many young men have moved back home.

Black and Latino Men More Likely to Live at Home

In 2011, 31 percent of young black men lived in their parents' homes, compared with 11 percent of young black women—a startling 20-percentage-point gap. Among Latinos, 21 percent of young men and 11 percent of young women lived with their parents, while the gap between white men (15 percent) and women (9 percent) was smaller than for other groups. African American and Latino men have been disproportionately affected by the recession, which may have exacerbated these gender differences.16 Since 2007, Latino men have experienced the largest jump in young men living at home—an 8-percentage-point increase in just four years.

At the state level, New York has the highest proportion of young men living with their parents (21 percent), followed by New Jersey and Hawaii (19 percent each). The high cost of living in these states undoubtedly plays an important role in young adults' decisions to live at home. New York also had the largest gap between men and women living in their parents' homes. Between 2009 and 2011, 27 percent of young men in New York lived with their parents compared with 14 percent of women.17 Young women's high earnings in New York City, relative to young men, may help explain this gender difference.18 Most of the states with the lowest proportions of young adults living at home were located in the Midwest.

Disconnected Young Adults

Since 2007, there has also been a rising share of young adults who are disconnected from work and school. In the United Kingdom, they are called NEETS, people who are "Not in Employment, Education, or Training," and their numbers have reached record-high levels.19 The United States is now experiencing a similar increase in young adults who are detached from school and the workforce, especially among men.

In 2010, nearly one in five men ages 25 to 34 was idle—neither working nor attending school (see table). Between 2007 and 2010, the share of men who were idle increased by 5 percentage points. Meanwhile, the share of men who were working (but not in school) dropped from 75 percent to 69 percent. For women, there was a slight drop in those working (not in school) but the share who were idle held steady at 26 percent. Young women who are not working and not in school are more likely to be married than their male counterparts, which may help explain the gender difference.20


Percent Distribution of Young Adults Ages 25-34 by School Enrollment and Employment Status, 2007 and 2010 

  Men (%) Women (%)
School Enrollment, Employment Status 2007 2010 2007 2010
In school, working 8 8 10 10
In school, not working 3 4 4 5
Not in school, working 75 69 61 58
Not in school, not working 14 19 26 26

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey.


There are also substantial racial/ethnic differences in the share of young adults who are disconnected from work and school. In 2010, about 19 percent of whites and Asian Americans ages 25 to34 were idle, compared with 27 percent of Latinos and 31 percent of African Americans.

Implications

The rising number of young adults living with their parents, often disconnected from work and school, may lead to further declines in marriage, family formation, and childbearing. The United States is inching its way toward a more European model where people routinely wait until their 30s to leave the parental nest.21 In Europe, as in the United States, young men are much more likely than young women to reside in their parents' homes.

These trends are significant because marriage is associated with many benefits for families and individuals, including higher income, better health, and longer life expectancy. One reason for these benefits may be that people with higher potential earnings and better health are "selected" into marriage, resulting in better outcomes for married couples. However, most researchers agree that marriage also has an independent, positive effect on well-being.22 The recent decline in marriage may have long-term negative effects on the health and well-being of young adults, especially those with less education.

The decline in marriage may also affect conditions for children because of the growing number of births to unmarried parents. In 2009, nonmarital births accounted for 41 percent of all births in the United States. Although roughly half of these nonmarital births are to cohabiting couples, these unions tend to be less stable and have fewer economic resources compared with married couples.23 Therefore, declining marriage rates put more children at risk of growing up poor, which can have lasting consequences for their health and economic prospects.24

Since younger families are more likely to be headed by racial/ethnic minorities compared with families headed by older Americans, the declining economic prospects of young adults are exacerbating racial/ethnic disparities in the United States—contributing to a growing economic gap between whites and other groups, especially blacks and Latinos.25 Closing these gaps is important not only for the economic success of the current cohort of young adults, but also for the health, development, and economic security of the next generation.

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Next page: The Continuing U.S. Recession and the Birth Rate


Mark Mather is associate vice president of Domestic Programs at the Population Reference Bureau.


References

  1. The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for those ages 25 to 34 was 9.8 percent.
  2. Randy Ilq, "Long-term Unemployment Experience of the Jobless," Issues in Labor Statistics Summary 10-05 (June 2010), accessed at www.bls.gov/opub/ils/summary_10_05/long_term_unemployment.htm, on Nov. 4, 2011.
  3. Wolfgang Lutz, V. Skirbekk, and Maria Rita Testa, "The Low Fertility Trap Hypothesis," in Vienna Yearbook of Population Research (Vienna: Vienna Institute of Demography, 2006); Lisa Bell et al., "Failure to Launch: Cross-National Trends in the Transition to Economic Independence," Luxembourg Income Study Working Paper Series no. 456, accessed at www.lisproject.org/publications/liswps/456.pdf, on Nov. 4, 2011; and Christian Schmitt, "Gender-Specific Effects of Unemployment on Family Formation: A Cross-National Perspective," SOEP paper no. 127 (2008), accessed at http://ssrn.com/abstract=1276149, on Nov. 4, 2011.
  4. PRB analysis of data from the 2000 U.S. Decennial Census and the 2010 American Community Survey.
  5. The National Marriage Project, "State of Our Unions," accessed at http://stateofourunions.org/2009/si-marriage.php. on Sept. 22, 2010.
  6. Rose M. Kreider, "Increase in Opposite-Sex Cohabiting Couples From 2009 to 2010 in the Annual Social and Economic Supplement (ASEC) to the Current Population Survey (CPS)," Housing and Household Economic Statistics Division Working Paper, accessed at www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/Inc-Opp-sex-2009-to-2010.pdf, on Sept. 23, 2010.
  7. Richard Fry and D'Vera Cohn, "New Economics of Marriage: The Rise of Wives" (Jan. 19, 2010), accessed at http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1466/economics-marriage-rise-of-wives, on Sept. 13, 2010.
  8. Andrew Cherlin, The Marriage-Go-Round (New York: Random House, 2010).
  9. Linda A. Jacobsen and Mark Mather, "U.S. Economic and Social Trends Since 2000," Population Bulletin 65, no. 1 (2010). 
  10. U.S. Census Bureau, "Income, Poverty and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2010," accessed at www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/income_wealth/cb11-157.html, on Sept. 19, 2011. Data are from the Annual Social and Economic Supplement of the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey.
  11. In the CPS, unmarried college students living in dormitories are counted as living in their parents homes.
  12. See Zhu Xiao Di, Yi Yang, and Xiaodong Liu, Young American Adults Living in Parental Homes (Cambridge, MA: Joint Center for Housing Studies, Harvard University, 2002), accessed at www.jchs.harvard.edu/publications/markets/di_W02-3.pdf, on Sept. 19, 2011.
  13. Rose M. Kreider, "Young Adults Living in Their Parents' Home," paper presented at the 2007 American Sociological Association annual meetings.
  14. The Current Population Survey's Annual Social and Economic Supplement collects information about the civilian noninstitutionalized population.
  15. The National Marriage Project, "State of Our Unions."
  16. Jacobsen and Mather, "U.S. Economic and Social Trends Since 2000."
  17. Data for New York are based on a three-year average of CPS data from 2009 to 2011.
  18. Sam Roberts, "For Young Earners in Big City, a Gap in Women's Favor," New York Times, Aug. 3, 2007, accessed at www.nytimes.com/2007/08/03/nyregion/03women.html?pagewanted=print, on Sept. 20, 2011.
  19. Jessica Shepherd, "Neet England: How Many Young People Are Not in Employment Education or Training?" The Guardian, Feb. 24, 2011.
  20. Ana J. Montalvo and Amy O'Hara, "A Profile of the Idle Youth in the U.S.," paper presented at the 2008 Population Association of America annual meetings.
  21. Marta Choroszewicz and Pascal Wolff, "51 Million Young EU Adults Lived With Their Parent(s) in 2008," Eurostat Statistics in Focus, accessed at http://epp.eurostat.ec.europa.eu, on Sept. 20, 2011.
  22. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, Office of Human Services Policy, "The Effects of Marriage on Health: A Synthesis of Recent Research Evidence," accessed at http://aspe.hhs.gov/hsp/07/marriageonhealth/rb.htm, on Sept. 26, 2010.
  23. Sarah McLanahan, "How Are the Children of Single Mothers Faring? Evidence From the Fragile Families Study," PRB Discuss Online (Feb. 28, 2010), accessed on Sept. 23, 2010.
  24. Greg J. Duncan, Kathleen M. Ziol-Guest, and Ariel Kalil, "Early-Childhood Poverty and Adult Attainment Behavior and Health," Child Development 81, no. 1 (2010): 306-25.
  25. Mark Mather, "The New Generation Gap" (May 2007), on Nov. 4, 2011.