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Employment Difference Between Opposite-Sex Cohabiting Couples and Married Couples Exist Even When Children Are Present

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Both members of unmarried, opposite-sex couples living together were more likely than opposite-sex married couples to be employed, according to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2010 and 2020 America’s Families and Living Arrangements annual tables packages.

In 2010, about 49.2% (3.7 million) of the nation’s opposite-sex cohabiting couples were both employed, compared to 47.4% (28.6 million) of opposite-sex married couples.

A greater proportion of cohabiting couples than married couples without children under age 18 had both partners employed, and that share grew in the past decade, from 54.2% in 2010 to 61.1% in 2020.

The gap widened in 2020 when about 58.9% (5.2 million) of opposite-sex cohabiting couples both worked, compared to 47.7% (30.6 million) of married couples.


No Children in the Household

The employment gap between unmarried opposite-sex couples living together and opposite-sex married couples existed even in households without young children.

A greater proportion of cohabiting couples than married couples without children under age 18 had both partners employed, and that share grew in the past decade, from 54.2% in 2010 to 61.1% in 2020.

Among married couples only, however, the share of those without children under 18 with both partners employed dipped slightly, from 40.0% in 2010 to 38.9% in 2020.

Why the difference?

Married couples tend to be older than cohabiting couples and are more likely to be retired, which means that a smaller share of them are working (Tables UC3 and FG3). As a result, opposite-sex couples without children who live together are more likely than their married counterparts to be employed.


Children in the Household

The number and percentage of relationships in which both partners were employed increased for both cohabiting and married couples with children under age 18, but the rate of growth was about 25% higher for cohabiting couples.

In 2010, 40.9% (1.2 million) of cohabiting couples with children under 18 in the household had both partners employed; in 2020, that rose to 54.2% (1.5 million).

The overall trend was similar among married couples: In 2010, about 57.7% (14.6 million) with children under 18 had both partners employed, compared to 62.1% (15.1 million) in 2020.

It is important to note that since these estimates are from Tables FG1 and UC1, they show only biological children under 18 of either partner for cohabiting couples, and biological, step, and adopted children for married couples.


How Children Fare

Research has shown that children living with cohabiting parents may fare worse on a variety of outcomes than those living with married parents, likely because cohabiting couples have historically earned less money and had lower levels of educational attainment than married couples.

However, cohabitation is now more common than ever before and has dramatically increased for all age, educational and racial/origin groups.

When both partners in relationships work, they presumably bring in more money than people in partnerships where only one or neither partner is employed.

So, are children who live with cohabiting parents better off today than they were a decade ago? By some measures, yes.

In 2010, about 1.2 million children (45.9%) living with two cohabiting parents were below the poverty line; that number dropped to 1.0 million (37.2%) in 2020.

This indicates that as cohabitation became more common, fewer children in these families lived in poverty.

However, children living with cohabiting parents overall still tended to have fewer economic resources and worse outcomes (lower math and reading scores, a higher risk of drinking and smoking) than children with married parents.

The bottom line: Children living with cohabiting couples may be better off on some measures than they were a decade ago, but there are still stark differences in well-being of children in different living arrangements.



The America’s Families and Living Arrangements tables and figures also provide details about family groups, household sizes and other living arrangements.

More information about confidentiality protection, sampling error, nonsampling error and definitions is found on the CPS technical documentation page.


Chanell Washington is a survey statistician in the Census Bureau’s Fertility and Family Statistics Branch.

Page Last Revised - June 10, 2022
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