Many Zoomers prefer cohabitation to marriage

A new study published in the August issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family found that the baby boomer generation is much more likely to shack up than get married — and they are staying together longer because of it.

Susan Brown, the study’s lead author and co-director of the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, wrote that “Cohabitation is really taking hold across the generations. It is now a viable alternative to marriage, even to older adults.”

The U.S. study looked at data from the 1998 to 2006 Health and Retirement Study as well as the 2000 and 2010 Current Population Surveys, and tracked 3,700 unmarried people aged 51 to 75. Researchers did not look at same-sex relationships.

The findings showed that the older couples who lived together without officially tying the knot have more stable relationships compared to their married counterparts. In fact, the study found that death is more likely to break up a cohabiting couple than a break-up.

While the number of older couples living together is nowhere near that of younger couples, it has more than doubled over the past 10 years. In 2000, only 1.2 million people over the age of 50 were cohabiting, but by 2010 that number jumped to 2.75 million.

A similar trend has emerged in this country, with fewer older couples opting for the traditional march down the aisle. In a previous article, we reported that Canadian census figures showed a huge increase in common law unions among 50+ Canadians, with the most significant growth among people in their early 60s.

Part of this phenomenon may be because living together has financial benefits for many Zoomers. In the United States, for example, widows can keep their spouses’ Social Security benefits if they remain unmarried. Not marrying also means people can avoid taking on the medical debts of their partner.

“Older people may lack an incentive to get married. They no longer are at the stage of life when they feel like they want or have to have a big wedding — to please family, to announce their commitment to the world, to protect future children or to accumulate wedding gifts. Second, there are some real disincentives for some: complicated finances, prior experience with the hassles of dissolving a marriage if something were to go wrong,” Stephanie Coontz, a professor at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, told HealthDay.

“The stigma has largely disappeared for most Americans, except for small pockets of people,” she continued. “Older Americans may be more likely to disapprove of cohabitation in the abstract, but they also have fewer relatives alive to shock and offend. Possibly those two tendencies balance each other out.”

Sources: Journal of Marriage and Family, HealthDay