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The Nuclear Family Is Still The Majority Of U.S. Households–Just Barely

Traditional living arrangements of parents and children are becoming less common.

The Nuclear Family Is Still The Majority Of U.S. Households–Just Barely
[Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images]

What is a typical American family? In this modern day, the nuclear two-parents-two-kids setup is surely a thing of the past, right? Not so fast. FlowingData’s Nathan Yau scraped the numbers from 2010-2014 American Community Survey and found that the nuclear family is still dominant—but only just.

Yau put together this in-depth chart, showing the top 50 kinds of families in the U.S. today. The first surprise is that 50 kinds of family exist at all, but the groups are quite specific, with separate categories for things like “married couple, two kids” and “married couple, three kids.” The diversity of U.S. household configurations is broad. In fact, Yau counted 10,276 different types of household when collating his data.

To categorize the families further, Yau classified them into groups, using United Nations definitions: one-person, nuclear, extended, and composite. When clumped together like this, the family types are easier to understand. Here’s the key to reading Yau’s chart:

Relationships are relative to the surveyed head of household. Larger circles are (mostly) adults, and smaller circles are children or grandchildren. Circles are colored dark green to show the householder’s family nucleus, light green for family members outside the nucleus, and gray for non-relatives, which includes friends and partners. Connecting lines represent marriage and children, or the householder’s family nucleus.

The chart only covers the top 50 kinds of family, although Yau says that this covers around 94% of all household types in the U.S. And the nuclear family wins, barely, accounting for 54% of households. The chart is a little misleading, because if you count up the number of nuclear family squares, you only get 13 out of 50.

But the most interesting part might be that other 46%, the non-nuclear families. Nuclear is defined by the UN as any of the following: “a married-couple family, with or without child(ren), or a father (or mother) with child(ren).” That is, pretty much anyone living with their kids. Other kinds of household include siblings living together, extended families of three generations living together, or people living with friends and/or relatives. One thing missing from the UN’s guidance on family types is same-sex marriages. Then again, “a married couple with children,” also means a married same-sex couple with children, so perhaps there’s no need for clarification.

The nuclear family, then, remains dominant, but not really in the sense we understand it. We might commonly think of a nuclear family as two parents, plus one or more kids, but the definition is a lot broader than that, encompassing anything from a married couple, to a lone parent and child. Considered like this, perhaps the very definition of nuclear family has become useless because it doesn’t really mean much any more.

Still, one thing that’s clear from all this data is that we have the makings of an almost infinite number of sitcoms, and that’s something.

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About the author

Previously found writing at Wired.com, Cult of Mac and Straight No filter.