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Living arrangements evolve

The U.S. Census Bureau defines a household as: “all of the people who occupy a housing unit. One person in each household is designated as the householder. In most cases, this is the person, or one of the people, in whose name the home is owned, being bought or rented. If there is no such person in the household, any household member 15 years old and over can be designated as the householder.”

Statistics show a significant demographic shift from households of the mid-20th century. Most babies born in the three decades following World War II grew up in what is commonly described as the traditional family or traditional household, consisting of two opposite sex, married adults who were the biological parents of one or more children.

Beginning around the middle of the century, a growing trend away from this traditional household unit emerged. A major catalyst was the increasing rate and acceptance of divorce, leading to households headed by a single parent, as well as to blended households with two opposite sex parents, who may or may not be married to each other, and either of which might not be biologically related to all of the children. This leads to a multitude of living arrangements today, which include never married opposite sex adult households and same sex adults living under the legal status they are able to obtain within the jurisdiction in which they reside.

The 2010 census statistics reported by the U.S. Census Bureau showed that in 2010, for the first time since data on households were first tabulated in 1940, less than half of all households (48 percent) were husband-wife households, down from 52 percent in 2000 and 55 percent in 1990. The division among the states ranged from Utah with the highest percentage of husband-wife households (61 percent) to New York with the lowest of the states (43.6 percent). Nevada has 46 percent, and the District of Columbia has just 22 percent.

The reasons behind these changes are increasingly complex and find root in a variety of soils, including the advent of the two-income household, changing social mores, a decline in religious affiliation, increased tolerance for nontraditional gender specific relationships and the evolution of laws to protect minority rights.


Multigenerational households are generally described as a household with at least two adult generations living under the same roof. Many consist of family members from at least three distinct generations, usually grandparents, parents and children, but may also skip a generation and consist of just grandparents and grandchildren. These arrangements were common in the period preceding World War II. Following the war, children started moving out of the home upon marriage to establish a separate household, leaving their parents to live alone.

According to the Pew Research Center, “The extended family household fell out of favor with the American public. In 1940, about a quarter of the population lived in one; by 1980, just 12 percent did. A range of demographic factors likely contributed to this decline, among them the rapid growth of the nuclear-family-centered suburbs; the decline in the share of immigrants in the population; and the sharp rise in the health and economic well-being of adults ages 65 and older.”

This trend bottomed out in the 1970s and has reversed as shown below:

With its economic uncertainty, the depth of the Great Recession has cemented this trend for the foreseeable future. Living in a multigenerational household has proven more advantageous for the groups hardest hit by the economy. Among the unemployed, the poverty rate in 2009 for those living in multigenerational households was just over 17 percent compared to more than 30 percent for those living in other unemployed households.

This statistic holds true for all ethnic groups. While the ability to pool finances is an advantage, it does result in households that are relatively large compared to others. For those able to adjust to living with a larger family unit, this can be a positive experience.

As the previous charts show, the trend toward multigenerational households began to rise well before the Great Recession. Much of this increase was fueled by factors other than strictly economic. The rise in the number of immigrant families, children who leave the nest later in life or return after college, and the desire and ability of children to care for elderly parents are some of the reasons for the trend. And builders are taking notice.

Springing up around the country are developments that are designed to accommodate the change in the family. Boomerang children, aging parents, ethnic groups that traditionally have three or more generations under one roof and singles who find it necessary to double up with friends or family have created a demand for a different kind of living quarters.

While mother-in-law quarters have been around for decades, builders have had to deal with difficult zoning laws that require single-family homes. In Las Vegas, the popular casita option can be beyond the budget of some homeowners. Some states and municipalities, California most notably, have begun to enact laws allowing homeowners the right to build units for additional family members.

Having grandma move in to help care for the children rather than pay the high cost of child care has become an attractive option for households with small children where both parents work.

Developers in Las Vegas, such as Lennar, Pulte, Ryland and KB Homes, have addressed this trend toward multigenerational housing. They have created distinctive floorplans to provide for different living arrangements that include the needs of multigenerational households.

In a December 2011 article in Business Wire, Jeremy Parness, division president for Lennar Las Vegas, stated, “We have created this plan to allow for dual living situations without sacrificing comfort – it’s literally a home within a home.”

He continued, “The opportunity for families to share a mortgage makes a lot of economic sense for many families. The home within a home, is essentially two homes with one payment, making living together affordable, comfortable and flexible to your needs.”


The definition of cohabitation is evolving. Cohabitation was simply defined as an unmarried couple living together in a marriage-like relationship that includes sexual relations. The meaning originally defined the unmarried couple to be of opposite genders.

Today, same gender couples are included in the definition, however, in some cases, the sexual relationship may be absent. The courts generally require there be some sort of sexual relationship for them to bestow legal status on the arrangement in order to qualify for certain benefits previously afforded only to spouses.

Finding agreement among researchers about the success or failure of cohabitation is like finding two politicians of opposing parties who agree on any controversial issue. One thing they all do agree on though is that cohabitation, the living together of two unmarried adults in a marriage-like relationship, has been increasing.

The chart above shows the trend in cohabitation prior to first marriage among women ages 19-44.

USA Today reported that a 2010 phone survey found that the general view on whether living together without being married is a good thing or bad thing was surprising. The results showed that 50 percent of the population believe it doesn’t make much difference, while 38 percent view it as a bad thing for society, 10 percent think it’s good and 2 percent don’t know or don’t care.

A study of more than 22,000 men and women, published in the March 22, 2012, National Health Statistics Reports, concluded, “The percentage of women who were currently cohabiting (living with a man in a sexual relationship) rose from 3.0 percent in 1982 to 11 percent in 2006–2010; it was higher in some groups, including Hispanic groups, and the less educated. In 2006–2010, women and men married for the first time at older ages than in previous years. The median age at first marriage was 25.8 for women and 28.3 for men. Premarital cohabitation contributed to the delay in first marriage for both women and men.”

The cohabitation experience in education groups reveals that slightly less than 50 percent of women with 12 years of schooling or more experienced cohabitation while nearly three-quarters of women with less than 12 years of education cohabited.

“Cohabitation is taking hold across the generations. It is now a viable alternative to marriage, even to older adults,” said Susan Brown, co-director of the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.

The number of people older than 50 who are living together has more than doubled since the turn of the century from about 1.2 million people to about 2.75 million in 2010. In the 50 to 64 age group, 12 percent of single people were living together in 2010, up from just 7 percent a decade earlier.

In 1960, about 450,000 unmarried couples of all age groups lived together. Now the number is more than 7.5 million.

While the sexual revolution and the availability of birth control have contributed greatly to this increase, the current economy makes “sharing the bills” more relevant. Additionally, some believe living together before marriage will assure that the marriage will last longer because the couple will get to know each other better, thus the divorce rate should be lower.

However, according to Meg Jay, a clinical psychologist at the University of Virginia,that belief “is contradicted by experience. Couples who cohabit before marriage (and especially before an engagement or an otherwise clear commitment) tend to be less satisfied with their marriages – and more likely to divorce – than couples who do not.”

Researchers have found that women more likely see cohabitation as a step toward marriage, while men use it to test a relationship or postpone commitment. Frequently, these differences can result in negative interactions and lower levels of commitment both before and after marriage.

The belief that leaving a cohabiting relationship is quicker and easier than divorce isn’t supported by the economic facts, especially if the cohabitation has lasted several years. While at first it is a low-cost, low-risk living arrangement, it can quickly lock a couple into situations they may not have anticipated. Joint leases or mortgages, joint bank accounts, credit cards, furniture purchases, pets and extended family expectations can all make it difficult to split.

Living in a less desirable situation can be less stressful than going through the changes required to leave it. Therapists call this the lock-in effect, or the decreased likelihood to change once an investment has been made. Important questions to consider before jumping into a cohabitation arrangement include what would happen to either partner if the relationship went south and they decided to split.

There are things that couples can do to lessen the possibility of making an unfortunate choice. Recent research suggests couples with different levels of commitment, simply as an economic “two can live cheaper together than separately,” or who use cohabiting as a test, are more likely to result in a poor relationship and eventually split.

The most successful are couples who enter the relationship after discussing commitment levels before moving in together and see cohabitation as an intentional step toward marriage.

As Jay noted, “I am not for or against living together, but I am for young adults knowing that, far from safeguarding against divorce and unhappiness, moving in with someone can increase your chances of making a mistake – or of spending too much time on a mistake.

A mentor of mine used to say, ‘The best time to work on someone’s marriage is before he or she has one,’ and in our era, that may mean before cohabitation.”

Individuals who cohabit in a non-marriage-like relationship, such as college roommates, siblings who live together or the elderly who find sharing expenses to be necessary, are not included in the surveys. The success or failure of these households, while increasing as are other nontraditional households, produces little controversial interest.

The upward trends in multigenerational and cohabitation households do not appear to be near an end. Society may continue to evolve as the traditional becomes the nontraditional. Surveys and experience do show that while economics is a major factor in the decision to enter into any kind of household, social questions must not be ignored if the arrangement is to work.

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