|This decade will likely be the first in at least 160 years in which American households have more people than before. Shifts that are driving the uptick in U.S. household size include growing shares of multigenerational households and “doubled-up” households with roommates. (Pew Research Center)|
Throughout nearly all of recorded history, most people lived together in large groups.
Homes were relatively expensive to build and maintain. Living and working together provided vital economies of scale to people whose incomes were barely above subsistence. Higher fertility and shorter lifespans expanded the share of dependent children and winnowed the share of independent elders. And the culture reinforced the social virtues of obedience and cooperation.
All that began changing two centuries ago in the world's most affluent or "modern" societies. And today it is changing across most of the world, except perhaps among the most rural, most traditional, and lowest-income societies.
What happened? Homes became relatively cheaper and easier to maintain. Higher real incomes made household economies of scale less important--and increased the value of the market division of labor. (Today, a pizza delivered to your door through a market transaction is a lot cheaper, for most people than the time-value of a home-cooked meal.) Fertility steadily fell, reducing the number of children per household. Longevity rose, increasing the number of surviving elders. And as for the culture, well, individual liberty is pretty much the leitmotiv of modernity.
The Pew study documents this gradual shift by simply tabulating the decennial U.S. Census figures for average household size since 1790. It shows that every decade, the figure has declined--from 5.79 non-slave Americans per household in 1790 (which was already far below the European norm) to 5.50 on the eve of the Civil War. And then to 4.93 in 1890, to 3.67 in 1940, and all the way down to 2.58 in 2010.
But--and this is the main news of the Pew study--that number has risen to 2.63 in 2018. Thus, barring an unexpected surprise in the 2020 decennial Census, the 2010s could see the first-ever decade-over-decade rise. See the first three charts below.
Strictly speaking, I must add, Pew's conclusion may be unverifiable. The Census definition of "household" has changed over the decades. This leaves us with no reliable figures from 1790 to 1850. And in 1940, the Census shifted their methodology in a way that creates a comparability gap with earlier years. This is critical, because the 1930s may have also experienced some rise in average household size due to economic hardship, a birth bust, and plenty of group living. Multi-generational families living together in old Victorian homes--an image popularized in Frank Capra movies like "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and "You Can't Take It With You"--was a much-discussed reality of the Great Depression. This created, following World War II, huge hunger for the suburbs and the nuclear-family lifestyle of the Truman and Eisenhower years.
Yet the overall message of the Pew study is sound: Starting with the Great Recession, the trend toward ever-smaller household size may have come to an end--if not for the first time then at least for one of the very few times in American history. This is a message I've been banging on for several years now.
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ABOUT NEIL HOWE
Neil Howe is a renowned authority on generations and social change in America. An acclaimed bestselling author and speaker, he is the nation's leading thinker on today's generations—who they are, what motivates them, and how they will shape America's future.
A historian, economist, and demographer, Howe is also a recognized authority on global aging, long-term fiscal policy, and migration. He is a senior associate to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., where he helps direct the CSIS Global Aging Initiative.
Howe has written over a dozen books on generations, demographic change, and fiscal policy, many of them with William Strauss. Howe and Strauss' first book, Generations is a history of America told as a sequence of generational biographies. Vice President Al Gore called it "the most stimulating book on American history that I have ever read" and sent a copy to every member of Congress. Newt Gingrich called it "an intellectual tour de force." Of their book, The Fourth Turning, The Boston Globe wrote, "If Howe and Strauss are right, they will take their place among the great American prophets."
Howe and Strauss originally coined the term "Millennial Generation" in 1991, and wrote the pioneering book on this generation, Millennials Rising. His work has been featured frequently in the media, including USA Today, CNN, the New York Times, and CBS' 60 Minutes.
Previously, with Peter G. Peterson, Howe co-authored On Borrowed Time, a pioneering call for budgetary reform and The Graying of the Great Powers with Richard Jackson.
Howe received his B.A. at U.C. Berkeley and later earned graduate degrees in economics and history from Yale University.