The Great Recession is technically over (even if 74 percent of Americans disagree), but the length and severity of the downturn have arguably changed the way we live. The latest proof? A sharp rise in unmarried couples moving in together, according to the Census Bureau. The number of people "living in sin" jumped 13 percent this year, to 7.5 million couples, from 6.7 million in 2009. Is the economy really the key factor here?

Why does the Census Bureau connect the spike to the economy?
Unemployment rates were higher among new cohabiters — both partners have a job in only 39 percent of the cases — than among couples who'd been living together for more than a year, where both are employed in roughly 50 percent of cases. That suggests that "lack of employment for one of the partners" was a factor, says Census family demographer Rose Kreider, who analyzed the data.

But why now — didn't the recession start in 2007?
Officially, yes. But Kreider theorizes that, as the recession has dragged on, Americans have exhausted "other methods of coping — unemployment benefits, savings accounts, available credit, or assistance from friends and family," and have been forced to cohabitate in greater numbers.

Is there another plausible explanation?
Well, love. When you ask couples, says Scott Stanley, a cohabitation researcher at the University of Denver, "overwhelmingly, the largest reason people cohabit is to be together more." However, he adds, "it does seem pretty plausible that a chunk of the increase is because of the financial difficulties of living on your own." It would be really "odd" if 2010 were so "emotionally different" that 13 percent more couples decided to shack up, says Kreider

What differentiates these newly cohabiting couples?
In general, they're younger and less likely to be white. Regionally, the largest number of these new couples (38 percent) live in the South.

What about same-sex couples?
There was no statistically significant change in the number of same-sex partners who are cohabiting in 2010.

Is living together actually a good way to save money?
Former marriage counsellor John Curtis, author of Happily Un-Married, says the rise in shacking up is "a statement about survivability." It's certainly a "reasonable assumption that cohabitation consolidates some living expenses (e.g., rent, utilities, etc.)," says Alan Kridelbaugh in the Southeast Missourian. But it's also not the only option, notes Christian cohabitation critic Mike McManus, author of Living Together: Myths, Risks & Answers, who calls the new numbers "discouraging" and points out that struggling singles "can move back with their parents," or "a male can move in with another male." 

Sources: AFP, USA Today, AP, Forbes, Toronto Globe & Mail, Advertising Age, Southeast Missourian