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2006 Census: Family portrait: Continuity and change in Canadian families and households in 2006: National portrait: Individuals

Living as part of a common-law couple growing rapidly, especially for older age groups

Common-law unions have increased in popularity over the past 25 years in Canada. The census enumerated 2.8 million persons aged 15 and over who lived in a common-law union in 2006. They represented 10.8% of the population, up from 9.7% in 2001.

Common-law unions were most prevalent among young adults and they were most popular among individuals aged 25 to 29. About 22.6% of people in this age group were in a common-law union in 2006, up from 20.6% five years earlier.

Figure 8 Persons in common-law couples increasing for all age groups

The increase in common-law relationships suggests greater social acceptance of this family structure, as well as a desire to be part of a couple, but perhaps with fewer perceived emotional or financial obligations than those generally associated with marriage.

Although common-law unions were more predominant among the young, in recent years older age groups have experienced the most rapid growth. Gains have been especially fast during the past five years among people in their forties and over. The number of individuals aged 60 to 64 in common-law unions rose 77.1% between 2001 and 2006, the fastest pace of all age groups.

Figure 9 Growth rate for persons in common-law couples is more rapid for older age groups, 2001 to 2006

Conversely, growth occurred at a much slower pace among younger individuals. In fact, the number of people aged 35 to 39 in a common-law union fell 4.7%, reflecting a decline in the population of this age group during the past five years. These were the baby-busters, the first cohort to follow the large cohort of baby-boomers.

Among the nation's 4.0 million seniors aged 65 and over, about 106,500, or 2.7%, lived in a common-law union in 2006. In Quebec, this proportion was 4.5%.

Several factors could explain the gains among older age groups. First, baby-boomers, the large cohort aged roughly 41 to 60 in 2006 contribute to increased growth for all living arrangements due to their sheer size (See Portrait of the Canadian Population in 2006, by Age and Sex: National portrait). Indeed, persons in married couples also grew for all age groups over the age of 45 between 2001 and 2006, but the growth was nowhere near the increases observed for common-law partners. The most rapid increase for married persons was for 55- to 59-year-olds (+25.0%).

Beyond the impact of the large baby-boom generation, there are other factors that could account for the rapid growth of middle aged and older adults living common-law. It is possible that what was once primarily a living arrangement of young adults is becoming increasingly accepted by older generations. In addition, it could represent an 'aging in place' of people living common-law, that is, people who began living common-law in their twenties continue this living arrangement as they move into later ages. Following the dissolution of an earlier marriage, more and more people may choose to live common-law for subsequent relationships. This suggests that individuals still desire to be part of a couple, but they may be less interested in remarriage.

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