Senior Research Fellow
The Joint Center for Housing Studies' early effort to describe changes in household structure and the labor force participation of American womenThe Nation's Families, 1960-1990– adopted a temporal perspective from 1960-1990. Published in 1980, we thought at the time that a three-decade perspective was all that was needed to understand the dramatic changes of that era. Wrong! The longer historical perspective sheds much more light on the origins of today’s demographic shifts, particularly in household structure, and what they might mean for housing.
Ruggles begins with the trend in the share of persons age 65+ who live in multi-generational families. We have noted the increase in this household type during the past two decades, primarily due to the increasing share of Hispanic and Asian immigrants for whom multi-generational residence is more common, and have speculated about its implications for housing consumption. But since we housing researchers rarely look at trends spanning more than 30 or 40 years, we have no sense of whether the upward trend in multi-generational living is indeed all that significant.
Ruggles’ Figure 1, reproduced below, shows how slight the recent turnaround has been relative to longer-term historical levels. The high share of the labor force based in an agricultural economy drove the very high historical incidence of older Americans living in multi-generational households. Three quarters of the labor force in 1800 worked in agriculture, and farm labor still was in the majority in 1850 when the share of 65+ living in multi-generational families was also 75 percent. Ruggles explains convincingly why an agricultural based economy tied the generations together, and why the rise of wage labor off the farm split them apart.
Ruggles’ main theme is that the decline of what he calls the “corporate family” – those working in agriculture and other (often related) family businesses – and the gradual transformation of the workforce to include first only male breadwinners, and later dual earner and female breadwinner households – had the effect of making household structures both simpler and more fluid. Once again, his long-term perspective is enlightening in looking at the recent trend in such things as delayed marriage and divorce. Age at first marriage for both men and women has been rising steadily since 1960, and he predicts that the share of never-married 40-44 year old women will almost double in the near future, rising from 15 percent in 2010 to about 28 percent in 2030. Similarly, the rate at which married women are divorcing has increased steadily since 1960, showing no sign of this trend slowing. Consequently, the share of all households without a married couple present – which held near 20 percent between 1850 and 1950 – has risen to over 50 percent in 2010, and continues its upward trajectory.
Nor is it simply the case that young adults are just trading marriage for cohabitation. To be sure, this is happening to some degree, but Ruggles notes that the share of 25-29 year olds without a co-residing partner has grown from 23 percent in 1970 to 48 percent in 2007 to 54 percent today. The fastest growing household type is single-person rather than cohabiting couples, as more and more adults of all ages who never married, are separated/divorced, and are widowed live alone.
If the household is the unit of both production and consumption, greater fragmentation and instability in household structures is troublesome. The primary household production good today is the next generation, and the U.S. appears to be following the lead of many European countries in developing fertility levels below replacement. Nothing that Ruggles presents in his paper provides comfort that the recent declining fertility rates are simply due to the lingering effects of the Great Recession and will likely reverse themselves.
One contributing factor to declining fertility may be trends in income. Households have always provided the mechanism for combining incomes. To Ruggles’ dismay, the evolving global economy is leaving more American households without secure incomes. The long slide in the relative earning power of young men over the past 40 years has been mitigated by the steady rise in employment of wives. But now that fewer and fewer households contain a married couple, and given that women’s real wages have also begun to decline, aggregate household incomes for married couples has begun to decline as well. Ruggles suggests that the largest source of decline in economic opportunity for young people, especially over the past two decades and in future decades, may be the automation of both manufacturing and services made possible by new technologies.
Housing consumption broadly should follow the downward trends in employment and income. Boosting household formation and homeownership rates, especially among the young, will require a reversal of many of the long-term demographic and economic trends that Ruggles discusses.
Ruggles’ article has sixteen figures, some only going back in time to 1940, but many spanning 150 or more years. I highly recommend you take a look. Some will surely make your jaw drop too.