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Stat of the Day: The Amazing Decline of the Iconic Household

Married Couples With Children an Ever-Shrinking Part of the American Scene

By Published on . 2

The iconic American household -- married couples with children -- is now just one in five U.S. households, an all-time low. It's been a very long time, more than 50 years in fact, since we could say with any degree of accuracy that tthe typical American household is Mom, Pop and two kids." The percent of households has dropped in half from 44.3% to just 20.2% while the actual number, now 23.6 million, has remained relatively flat.

The chart shows the relative size and percentage of different household types. Click the "play" button to see how they have changed over time. Note: The incremental years between the decennial Census results show a trend and do not reflect the specific data for that year.

The reasons for this trend are many and complex. In short, over the past half century the imperative to marry in order to raise children has gradually diminished. Since 1960 the removal of discriminatory barriers combined with huge increases in white-collar jobs meant that more women were capable of earning enough to support themselves as well as any children they might have. Every decade over the past five, marriage has became less of an economic necessity for women.

It's more than just a function of an aging population or the number of "married, no kids" would have grown much faster. But over the past 50 years married households with no kids present only grew at less than one-third the rate of all households that were not married couples (104% vs 350%).

There have been both economic and societal consequences to this trend. From a societal perspective the acceptance of single mothers as a normal family type is about as total as it gets. In most places it is illegal to ask a prospective female employee if she is married or if she has children.

From an economic perspective diminishing percentages of households that are married with children has been a major factor in the low and often negative growth in median household income. The reason is simple: most married couples with children have two earners and the highest median household income of any household type. Currently it's 36 % above the median for all households. When there are fewer top-earning married with kids overall household income drops.

From a marketing perspective this trend means that "married with children" has become just another niche market. U.S. households are now so fragmented that any marketing effort to households must take into account that there are many more households of married with no children under age 18 (28%) or people who live alone (27%) than the 20% of households that are married with children.

But even though more than 40% of births are to unmarried women, single parents are only 10% of households and are greatly outnumbered by married with children. However, if one's key target market is all families with children, they are now a mere 30% of U.S. households. Non-family households, by contrast, are 34%. We can say without equivocation: the U.S. mass market we enjoyed in the past is extinct.

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