Chart of the Day: US Household Composition over Time

Here’s a chart that shows the changes in “household composition,” i.e. living alone vs. having a family. As you can see, things have been changing for some time:



In my opinion, this change, which has many roots, is the biggest driver of differences in urban development. Many people no longer need or want the 2,500 sq. ft. single family home for the simple reason that they’re living alone (Or maybe with a cat).

Over at StatChat, they describe the trends:

In 1950, over half of all households consisted of two married parents with children. By 2014 that portion had declined to less than a quarter of U.S. households. The actual number of households with two spouses and children was smaller in 2014 than in 1980, despite the total U.S. population growing by over 40 percent during the period. Given the scale of the change, the decline in family households is arguably one of the most significant demographic trends over the past few decades.

Often demographic trends are interrelated –the decline in family households has certainly been influenced by the aging of the U.S. population. Since 2000, the majority of U.S. population growth has been concentrated in the older-than-60 age group as the baby boomer generation ages. Because the over 60 population accounts for the majority of the population that lives alone, by the 2010 Census, households with only one resident had replaced families with two spouses and children as the most common type of U.S. household

Something to keep in mind. Older people, more single people, fewer families with children. That explains all the new apartment buildings!

17 thoughts on “Chart of the Day: US Household Composition over Time

  1. Dana DeMasterDanaD

    Hrm……while surely all those singles living with cats need less space than families of four (also with cats), the average square footage of single family homes has increased by 42 percent since 1973. Those 2,500 sq ft houses with multiple acres of grass driving exurban development have only been a thing since the late 1990s.

    All the Richfields and Robbinsdales with their 1,100 sq ft ramblers and neighborhoods like Hamline-Midway and Longfellow seemed to suffice for a long time. I don’t imagine what families needed changed that dramatically between 1958 and 1998 – what made the exurban McMansion suddenly desirable (aside from affordability)?

    1. Wayne

      A housing bubble fueled by cheap credit and the idea that your living space should also be a cash machine.

      There’s more money to be made in bigger houses for everyone involved, from builders to agents to banks. So if you have a ton of people who can be approved for a huge mortgage, why not build more expensive houses to make sure you get all that extra money?

      The sudden change in the size of housing just happens to correspond to structural changes in our economy and the beginnings of the bubble. That’s not coincidence.

    2. Monte Castleman

      You have a couple of things going on:

      1) Yes, people are demanding bigger and more expensive houses. It’s like it’s child abuse to have kids share a bedroom; everyone wants a home office and home theater and a breakfast nook and a big garage for all the cars and all the toys and granite countertops and an upstairs laundry and a full “owner’s suite”

      2) Builders seem to be disinterested in smaller single family houses, instead assuming that if you can’t afford a McMansion you’ll have to settle for a multi-family dwelling even if a single family house is what you want.

      3) Anti-growth policies and minimums lot size zoning are inflating the cost of raw land, and the value of the house that needs to get built on them (a lot is always about 20-50% of the cost of a house with the Twin Cities towards the center).

      1. Dana DeMasterDanaD

        But, *why* are people demanding multiple bedrooms, owners suites, and breakfast nooks? We take that for granted, but what was the switch in attitude? Was it just cheap credit as Wayne says?

        Either way, the assertion that the biggest driver of urban development is a change in demand for McMansions based on household size is predicated on the belief that families demand McMansions. The growth in the dark blue “alone” bar and the decline in family households with children predates the rather sudden increase in square footage.

        1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

          In addition to cheap credit, perhaps changing attitudes about credit and willingness to hold on to debt?

          Prior generations didn’t have credit cards and student loans to get them used to the notion of keeping a lot of debt around before they even got to the idea of how much house to buy.

        2. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

          Also worth pointing out that families with children have been stagnant for decades at just shy of 2 kids in the house.

          And, while the number of households with kids and two parents has held steady since 1975 (around 25 million HHs fit that description, the share of single parent with children HHs has grown.

          All of which is to say, even within households that have kids (a common driver for space, bedrooms, etc), the average number of people has been steady or declining for quite some time.

        3. Rosa

          I’m guessing cheap credit and general consumption pressure – I’m sure those Levittown buyers would have gone for bigger if they could get the loans, just like people who were shut out of the credit market would have bought if they could.

          There’s also the idea, pushed by real estate agents, that there’s no resale value in a small place. I’ve known several people who went shopping for one bedroom homes and were steered away by real estate agents who said they’d never be able to resell because nobody buys one bedrooms. And since they could get a loan for a 2BR/2BA why not? It’s like the idea that you really ought to buy a house if you’re going to have a baby, if you can possibly afford it – as if the sudden jump in responsibility means you’re TOTALLY going to have time and brainspace for home ownership too.

          1. Wayne

            Bigger house = more expensive = bigger comission for the agent. It’s all about the perverse incentivization of bigger and more expensive by every party with no regard for the actual needs of the person buying.

      2. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

        Monte, you can’t just keep stating that builders are disinterested and that anti-growth policies are doing this. On a national level (heck, even local), how many policies are there that limit the spread of single family homes on the fringe? How many urban growth boundaries (or weaker MUSA lines like we have) are there? To what extent are they driving up land prices relative to other forces?

        Are builders disinterested in building smaller homes, or are the zoning requirements you cite (setbacks, lot size, etc) preventing them? Similar to my post on small-scale infill, I suspect that there’s a whole market of would-be home builders eager to provide 1,500 sqft homes on 1/8th acre lots if regulations were eased.

        1. Monte Castleman

          But yes, I’d say zoning is probably a bigger factor than the other two. Levittown lots were considered extravagant at 6,000 square feet, due to cheap land combined with high material costs in the immediate postwar era, and now the typical exurban lot is double to triple that

  2. Matt Brillhart

    I’m most surprised at the lack of growth (a few % points decline actually) in the “Two Spouse Family – No Children”. I would have guessed that to show at least modest growth over time. We’ll see in the 2020 Census I guess…

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