THEN AND NOW: How American families have changed since the early 1900s

Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty ImagesFamily life is changing in the US.
  • Average family size is decreasing, and middle children could be going extinct.
  • More and more Americans are living in multigenerational households.
  • Smartphones have changed the way families interact.

Family traditions, recipes, and heirlooms can be passed from generation to generation relatively unchanged. But families themselves have undergone many changes due to advancements in technology, economic factors, and societal shifts.

Here’s how families have changed from the 1900s to today.


The divorce rate is decreasing.

Getty ImagesDivorce is becoming less common.

INSIDER Data sourced figures from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and found that the divorce rate has been steadily decreasing since the mid-1980s. In 2017, the rate reached 2.9 divorces per 1,000 Americans with only 787,251 divorces total – the lowest it’s been since 1968.

Data scientist Randal S. Olson writes that the only major spike in the divorce rate was after World War II, probably because of “pre-WWII marriages coming to an abrupt end once the romance of wartime marriage wore off.”

INSIDER’s Kim Renfro reported that some sociologists say there could be a link between declining divorce rates and more people deciding to live together before marriage.


Same sex marriage is now legal nationwide, but LGBTQ+ families still experience discrimination.

Same-sex marriage became legal in all 50 states in 2015 with the Supreme Court case of Obergefell v. Hodges.

Public support for same-sex marriage has also grown over the past decade, according to the Pew Research Center. In 2007, most Americans (54%) opposed same-sex marriage. Ten years later, in 2017, more Americans supported it (62%) than opposed it (32%).

Even so, LGBTQ+ families still experience discrimination. Just this week, a Catholic school in Kansas City, Kansas, rejected the child of a same-sex couple.


Average family size is decreasing.

Hollis Johnson/INSIDERPeople are waiting longer to have kids.

In 2017, there were about 60.3 births per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44 – the lowest rate since the US started tracking birth rates in 1909,according to LiveScience.

A mother’s age at the birth of her first child has been steadily increasing for decades. According to data from the Centres for Disease Control, in 1980, it was 22.7. In 2013, it was 26.

Experts think there are several reasons for the decline including economic factors such as rising education costs and the 2008 recession, better sex education, and women choosing to focus on their careers and start families later in life.


Middle children could be “going extinct.”

Amber Morse/PexelsPeople are having fewer kids.

The Pew Research Center reports that in the late 1970s, women gave birth to more than three children on average by the end of their childbearing years. Family size has been steadily decreasing since then, with the average number of children remaining 2.4 for the past 20 years, prompting speculation that the middle child could be “going extinct.”


Household sizes have decreased, but the size of the average family home has increased.

John McDonnell/The Washington Post via Getty ImagesSingle-family homes are bigger.

According to Census Bureau data, the average single-family house is nearly 1,000 square feet bigger than it was 40 years ago.

In 1973, the average single-family home in the US was 1,525 square feet. In 2010, that number had increased to 2,169 square feet.

At the same time, the average household size has been decreasing. In 1960, there were an average of 3.3 people per household. In 2018, it dropped to 2.53 people.


More women with children have joined the workforce.

The US Department of Labour reported in 2015 that 69.9% of mothers with children under the age of 18 were in the labour force and represented 34.2% of all working women. That’s a 27.1% increase from 1975, when 47.4% of women with children worked.


Men are pitching in more to help with housework and parenting responsibilities, but women still do most of it.

As gender roles shift and women focus more on their careers before having children, millennial men are also shifting to take on more housekeeping and parenting responsibilities – or, at least, they’re trying to. Women still take on a disproportionate amount of that unpaid labour.

“The majority of young men and women say they would ideally like to equally share earning and care giving with their spouse,”Sarah Thébaud, a sociologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told The New York Times. “But it’s pretty clear that we don’t have the kinds of policies and flexible work options that really facilitate egalitarian relationships.”


Many Americans moved to the suburbs after World War II.

Antonio Villas-Boas/Business InsiderSuburbs have grown in popularity.

Before World War II, 13% of Americans lived in suburbs, according to the Oxford Research Encyclopedia. By 2010, half of the US population lived in suburbs.

As car ownership became more popular, it allowed families to move farther from urban areas and commute to work, and having a home with a backyard and picket fence became the “American dream.”


More and more Americans are living in multigenerational households.

Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty ImagesMore millennials have moved home.

In 2016, 20% of people in the US were living in multigenerational households – a record high of 64 million people, according to the Pew Research Center. In 1950, 21% of Americans lived in households with two or more adult generations. That number dipped to 12% in 1980, but has been on the rise since then.

For adults ages 18 to 34, living with one’s parents has become the most common living arrangement. Since 1880, the most common living arrangement had been living with a spouse or partner.


Smartphones have changed the way families interact.

The Washington Post/Contributor/Getty ImagesMost US households have smartphones.

The Pew Research Center found that one in five American households contains 10 or more devices such as smartphones, computers, and tablets. One third of American households have three or more smartphones. Ninety per cent of households contain at least one device, and a quarter of adults say that they’re “almost constantly” online.

Group chats have become a common way to keep up with family members. A YouGov poll found that 63% of Americans use group chats to talk to family, friends, and coworkers.

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