Paul Tuns:

According to a number of reports released by Statistics Canada in early July based on the 2021 census, more Canadians are living alone and fewer couples who live together are getting married. 

More people are living alone than ever before, with 4.4 million people living on their own, representing 15 per cent of all adults 15 years or older in private households. At the same time, common-law relationships are growing as are the number of people living with a roommate or in multi-generational homes. The only groups to shrink as a percentage of the population are married couple households and married couple households with children.

While the number of people living with room-mates who are not family members has increased by 54 per cent since 2001, it still represents just four per cent of the population. Multi-generational family households have increased by 45 per cent over that same time period, and they comprise seven per cent of the population.

The Statistics Canada report surmises there are a number of reasons for these changing lifestyles including housing prices, immigration, and changes in social mores.

While the percentage of adults 15 or older living together is exactly the same as it was in the 1921 census one century ago (57 per cent today compared to 58 per cent then), presumably more couples are living in common-law arrangements, with 23 per cent of couple households being common-law. Statistics Canada did not ask about common-law relationships until 1981, and such households have been steadily rising since.

Today, just 77 per cent of couples who live together are married, but marriage is less popular in Nunavut (48 per cent of all couple households), Quebec (57 per cent), Northwest Territories (64 per cent), and the Yukon (67). Every other province except New Brunswick and Nova Scotia has married-couple rates above 80 per cent, including 84 per cent of couples in Ontario and 83 per cent in each of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba.

Despite having about a quarter of the Canadian population, Quebec is home to 43 per cent of the country’s common-law households.

Canada’s 23 per cent common-law household rate is the highest among the G7 countries, but is still well behind Sweden, which has the highest percentage of common-law households (33 per cent) in the world. The United States, on the other hand, has a common-law rate of 12 per cent, while just 10 per cent of Italian households are common-law. 

Younger people are more likely to live common-law — in 1981, 23 per cent of couples age of 20-24 lived common-law, today 79 per cent in that cohort do — but the number of common-law households is growing in every age group. 

Peter Jon Mitchell, family program director at Cardus, a think tank, said research suggests that with fewer families there will be greater social and economic strife. The Cardus press release noted, “while married couples take advantage of the relative stability of marriage, including the economic security and increased social capital that stability brings, declining marriage among less educated Canadians means more future inequality.” 

Mitchell said, “Marriage is more than recognizing mutual love … The underlying commitment shapes how couples organize their lives. The stability of a commitment marriage has been shown to not only benefit adults, but is linked to greater child well-being.” 

Mitchell noted that research shows married couples are happier, healthier, and live longer than those who eschew marriage.

Nearly 15 per cent of people over the age of 15 live alone, including widows and widowers, but also a growing number of young people who other survey data suggests might be eschewing relationships. People liv1ing alone accounts for the largest percentage of households, with almost three-in-ten households being a single dwelling.

While fewer couples (common-law and married) have children – 50 per cent in 2021 compared to 64 per cent in 2001 – that partly reflects steeply declining fertility rates but also the aging of society as the adult children of couples grow up and move out. Still, it appears more couples are eschewing children, as among couples under the age of 30, just 35 per cent of households have children compared to fully half who did in 2001.

Mitchell said, “governments should consider how public policy can help Canadians achieve a healthy, stable, family life.”

One bit of positive news out of the census report is that fewer older women are living alone, with just 53 per cent of women over 85 living alone compared to 60 per cent in 2001, reflecting the fact that men are narrowing the gender gap in life expectancy.