Pew Research Center analyzed data on living arrangements in 130 countries, including 26 in the Asia-Pacific region, 40 in sub-Saharan Africa, 35 in Europe, 19 in Latin America and the Caribbean, and eight in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as the U.S. and Canada, which in this report make up North America.
Globally, the average individual lives in a household of 4.9 people. But there is wide variation around the world: The average person in sub-Saharan Africa resides in a home of 6.9 people, while the average European lives in a home that is less than half that size, at 3.1 members.
Regional differences also are apparent when it comes to household types: For example, more than half of people in the Middle East-North Africa region live in two-parent homes with minor children (56%), compared with about a quarter of Europeans (26%). And more than four-in-ten people in the Asia-Pacific region live in extended families (45%), compared with just one-in-ten North Americans (11%).
Every region has its own set of historical, economic, religious and cultural backdrops that influence living arrangements.
Wealthier parts of the world tend to have smaller households. Europeans in general, and particularly Western Europeans, are the most likely of all the regional groups to live alone: For example, Norway has the highest GDP per capita of any country in this study, and 17% of Norwegians live by themselves. Conversely, sub-Saharan African countries have both small GDPs and relatively few people who live alone.
Education is another important factor: The share of people within countries who live in couple-only households generally increases as average years of formal schooling rise and young adults delay or forgo having children. (People also live longer in these countries, which leads to more couples living together after adult children have moved out.)
On the other hand, natural disasters, epidemics and wars also leave their mark on household distributions. In Kenya and Malawi, where tens of thousands of people die each year from HIV/AIDS, single-parent households are relatively common. The HIV epidemic in Africa has affected middle-aged adults more than other age groups, leaving many children and grandparents without this middle generation. In Nepal, a massive earthquake in 2015 killed thousands of people and left millions homeless, forcing many Nepalis to shift their living arrangements and likely affecting household patterns for that country in subsequent surveys.
This chapter looks at the living arrangements in each region and within the major religious groups when they are sufficiently represented. The data in this report covers 91% of the global population, representing at least 85% of people in each major religious group. But groups are unevenly distributed around the world, and the number of religious groups compared within each region varies, reflecting the global distribution of religions and variation in the sample sizes of source surveys. For details on data sources and coverage, see Methodology.
The analysis starts with the average household sizes experienced by adherents of each religion, followed by a discussion of the most common household types. The regions are ordered by population size, starting with Asia and the Pacific.
The Asia-Pacific region is a good example of the way household sizes can vary within a single part of the world. The most religiously varied of all the regions – in part because it is the largest, home to more than half of the world’s population – Asia-Pacific has hundreds of millions of Muslims, Hindus, “nones,” Christians and Buddhists. In addition, the economies of the region’s 26 countries with available data range from Japan – one of the world’s wealthiest countries – to Nepal, one of the poorest.
On average, people in the Asia-Pacific region live in five-member households. Asian Muslims (6.0) and Hindus (5.7), on average, reside in households that are slightly bigger than those of Asians overall, while Asian Buddhists (3.9) and “nones” (3.7) have relatively small households.
Asia-Pacific stands out globally because it has the biggest share of people living in extended families (45%); it is the only region where that type of arrangement is more common than the two-parent family. This region, along with the Middle East-North Africa region, also has the smallest share of people in single-parent homes (2% in each).
These overall patterns are driven by India and China, which together account for more than 60% of the region’s population, encompassing the majority of Asian Hindus, Buddhists and “nones.” (Muslims in Asia and the Pacific are most numerous in Indonesia, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, while Christians, who make up a relatively small percentage of the regional population, are concentrated in the Philippines and China.)
Extended families are the most common household type in both India (54%) and China (44%). The concentration of Hindus in extended families on a global level reflects typical living arrangements in India, where 94% of the world’s Hindus reside. Extended families also are common in most other countries in the Asia-Pacific region, encompassing more than half of Muslims in Tajikistan (67%), Buddhists in Vietnam (56%) and “nones” in Taiwan (51%).
However, when it comes to household size, India and China are at opposite ends of the regional scale: The average Indian lives in a fairly big household (5.8), while the average person in China resides in a smaller household (3.8). Across the region, the countries with the smallest households tend to have large shares of Buddhists or unaffiliated people (or both). That includes China, but also Japan, South Korea, Mongolia and Thailand – where the average household size is about four people or fewer.
Northeast Asia stands out for its high frequency of solo households. South Korea’s general population has among the world’s highest rates of people living alone (21% – second only to Denmark), with South Korean “nones” (24%) and Christians (21%) more likely than Buddhists (14%) to live alone. Japan (15%) also has a relatively large share of people living alone, with Buddhists and “nones” about equally likely to do so.
As in other parts of the world, Muslims in the Asia-Pacific region tend to share their homes with more people. Afghanistan and Pakistan, which are overwhelmingly Muslim, also are the two countries where Asians live in the biggest households (9.8 and 8.5 people, respectively). Moreover, Muslims have larger households than their countrymen in a range of other countries – including some without Muslim majorities, such as India and the Philippines. However, Muslims’ tendency to live in fairly big households is not universal: The Muslim-majority countries of Indonesia (4.7) and Iran (4.1) have relatively small households by regional standards.
Household patterns vary widely across sub-Saharan Africa, with clear differences that can be measured in different parts of the region, across country borders and between religious groups in single countries. The region’s population is mostly Christian, with a substantial Muslim minority. In some countries, large Muslim and Christian populations live side by side.
Overall, sub-Saharan Africans live in the world’s biggest households, at an average of 6.9 people per household, with Muslims (8.5) in more expansive arrangements than Christians (6.0). The religiously unaffiliated and Hindus, who make up less than 4% of the regional population, have smaller homes – 5.7 and 3.9 people, respectively.
Within sub-Saharan Africa, the nations with the largest households tend to be in West Africa and have majority Muslim populations. In Gambia, Senegal and Mali – three neighboring countries with the largest overall household sizes – at least 90% of people are Muslim and the average person lives in a household of 12.6 people or more. Christians in those places also have the biggest households of Christians in any country, with as many as 10.3 people, though they live in smaller homes than their Muslim compatriots.
The region’s smallest households, meanwhile, are found in countries where Christians form a majority: In Sao Tome and Principe, South Africa, Madagascar and Rwanda, where Christians make up 80% or more of the population, the average person lives in a household of about five people. In an exception to the overall global and regional pattern, Muslims in Madagascar live in smaller households than Christians. (In South Africa and Rwanda, there is not much of a difference, and in Sao Tome no data is available for Muslims.)
Overall, sub-Saharan Africans are about as likely to live in two-parent households (37%) as in extended families (35%). The region is unique in its high rate of people living in polygamous homes, with 11% in this arrangement, much higher than the 2% global average. (This practice is particularly common in West and Central Africa. For a more detailed discussion of polygamous households, see below.) Sub-Saharan Africa also has the smallest percentage of people in adult child households (2%).
While sub-Saharan African Christians are about as likely to live in two-parent families (38%) as in extended families (39%), Muslims are more frequently found in two-parent families (37%) than in extended families (27%). The smaller share of Muslims in extended families may be related to a higher prevalence of polygamous households among Muslims.
In Senegal and Guinea-Bissau, two-thirds or more of Christians live in extended families (66% and 74%), making these the sub-Saharan African communities most likely to do so. Extended families are least often found among Muslims in Nigeria, only 13% of whom reside in that type of home.
Polygamy is very common in some African countries
Around the world, polygamy is very rare. About 2% of people globally live in households in which at least one member has more than one spouse or partner. The practice is illegal in most countries, and laws that allow it are primarily found in the Middle East and Africa.22 (For more on polygamy laws and religious teachings, see this sidebar.)
In sub-Saharan Africa, however, polygamy is practiced in a group of West and Central African countries that sometimes are referred to as the “polygamy belt” – and they include Muslim-majority countries such as Senegal, Gambia and Mali, as well as Christian-majority nations such as Cameroon, the Central African Republic and Benin.23
Still, most of the countries that allow polygamy are majority-Muslim – and an analysis of sub-Saharan Africa specifically shows that Muslims there are more likely than Christians, Hindus or the unaffiliated to live in polygamous households. There also is a high rate of polygamy among adherents of African folk religions – and, in a few countries, among “nones.” (Christian churches with historic ties to Western missionaries tend to reject this type of marriage, although many churches that have their roots in African communities allow it. Polygamy is an accepted practice in some tribal and ethnic cultures.24)
Among Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa, a quarter live in polygamous households, compared with 3% of African Christians and 5% of the unaffiliated. Among people who do not belong to any of these groups and instead identify with traditions that can be described as folk religions, 19% live in polygamous households.25
Overall, the share of all sub-Saharan Africans living in polygamous households is 11%. In six countries – Burkina Faso, Mali, Gambia, Niger, Nigeria and Guinea – at least a quarter of the population lives in polygamous homes.26 Polygamy is legal in all of these countries, at least to some extent. In Nigeria, polygamy is banned under civil law, but 12 northern states governed by Shariah law allow it.27
Burkina Faso has sub-Saharan Africa’s largest share of people living in polygamous households (36%), including nearly half of those who practice folk religions (45%), making them the likeliest of all religious groups to live in this arrangement. Four-in-ten Muslims in Burkina Faso live in polygamous households, followed by roughly a quarter of Christians (24%). (Burkina Faso is largely Muslim, with a sizable Christian minority.) In Cameroon, which is majority Christian but has a sizable Muslim minority, the percentages of people living in polygamous households are 32% for adherents of folk religions, 26% for Muslims, 19% for “nones” and 7% for Christians. A similar pattern exists in Togo.
In Nigeria – Africa’s most populous country, where roughly half the population is Muslim and half is Christian – 28% of all people live in polygamous households. This arrangement is widespread among Muslims (40%) and adherents of folk religions (29%) but is less common among Christians (8%).
In Chad, the unaffiliated have the highest rates of polygamy, with about four-in-ten “nones” in this arrangement. Chad is also the only country where Christians (21%) are much more likely than Muslims (10%) to live in polygamous households.
Polygamy in laws and religion
Although polygamy is illegal in most places, over 50 countries – largely in the Middle East and Africa, but also in Asia – allow it to at least some degree. Polygamous marriages are almost always polygynist, with one man taking multiple wives; rules often specify that a man may marry up to four women if certain conditions are met. There are a few countries in which polygamy is illegal but relatively common, and many where the opposite is true.28
Among the countries covered in this report, polygamy is most widely practiced in West Africa, where that type of arrangement is often permitted by customary law or religious tradition, if not by civil law, according to the OECD. In six countries – Benin, Cabo Verde, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Guinea and Nigeria – polygamy is formally prohibited but tolerated. Some countries, including Burkina Faso and Togo, allow couples to choose between a monogamous or polygamous arrangement at the outset of their marriage. In others, including Mauritania, a man must obtain permission from his spouse or spouses before marrying again. In Nigeria, polygamy is banned at the national level, but recognized by the 12 northern states regulated by Shariah law.
In the Middle East-North Africa region, polygamy is legal in Iraq, Yemen, Algeria and Egypt, but fewer than 3% of individuals in those countries live in polygamous households. (Polygamy is also legal in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and most other countries in the Middle East and North Africa, but data is not available on household composition and religion outside of the eight countries covered in this report.) In Asia, this arrangement is both allowed and rare in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Iran and Afghanistan. In India, polygamy is legal only for Muslims, but a fraction of 1% of Indian Muslims – no more than any other religious group – live in polygamous homes.
Even though polygamy laws are usually skewed in favor of allowing men (but not women) to take multiple spouses, women are sometimes granted rights as well. For example, in Burkina Faso and Chad, two countries where polygamy is common, first wives must state whether they eventually want to be polygamous before they marry, and several other countries require the first wife’s permission before the husband can marry other wives. Other countries set guidelines on what men owe to their spouses; this is the case in Mali, where men are allowed as many as four wives but are obligated to treat them equally and to ensure the welfare, education and moral development of all of their children. Not all countries where polygamy is common take these issues into account: In Guinea-Bissau, early and forced marriage, levirate marriage (the practice of requiring a widow to marry her late husband’s brother), and polygamy are widespread, and no legal guidelines apply.
The history and theology surrounding polygamy are complex. Taking multiple spouses – particularly wives – has been approved of at one point or another, and practiced to some degree, in various religions.
In Judaism and Christianity, the Bible refers to several instances of accepted plural marriages, including by Abraham, Jacob and David. However, plural marriages were disavowed by these groups in the Middle Ages, and polygamy generally has not been condoned by Jews or Christians in recent centuries.29 Still, polygamy sometimes was practiced by certain Christian sects, including by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (sometimes called Mormons) in the U.S. until the late 1800s. Some Mormon splinter groups still practice polygamy.
In Africa, Christian missionaries who arrived in the 18th century targeted the indigenous practice of polygamy as a priority for reform, and marriage became a point of conflict.30 Studies have found that these efforts were often successful, and polygamy in Africa has diminished over the past century, particularly in countries that have been influenced by Christian missionaries, according to James Fenske, an economist at the University of Warwick. However, many Christian churches without Western origins allow polygamy, which may help explain its continued prevalence in some Christian communities.31
Among Muslims, supporters of polygamy often cite Quran verse 4:3, which instructs men to take as many wives as they can take care of, up to four. They also note that the Prophet Muhammad had multiple wives. However, scholars point out that early Muslim populations lived in communities where polygamy was widespread, and that Islam limited the practice by providing guidelines and specifying obligations of husbands to each of their wives. These conditions of fairness are so demanding that they essentially make polygamy “impossible for a righteous man,” according to Azizah Al-Hibri and Raja El Habti in a chapter of “Sex, Marriage, and Family in World Religions.”32
Historians also have noted that Islamic guidance on polygamy was issued amid wars in Arabia, when there were many widows and orphans requiring financial support, and that polygamy created a system for them to be cared for. To this day, polygamy is most common in places where people, and particularly men, tend to die young.
In the 35 countries studied, the average European lives in a household of 3.1 people, with the two largest groups – Christians and the unaffiliated – at 3.1 and 3.0, respectively. European Muslims, on average, live in households of 4.1 people. Europe is the region where all three of these groups have the smallest households worldwide. Most of the countries in the region are economically advanced.
Overall, Europe’s smallest households belong to Germans, Danes and Swedes (all at 2.7 members, on average). As in other parts of the world, countries with larger shares of Muslims tend to have bigger households.
In Kosovo, where 94% of the population is Muslim, the average person belongs to a household of 6.8 people, making this the European country with the most expansive living arrangements. In nearby majority-Muslim Albania, people also reside in fairly large households by European standards (4.6).
Other countries on the high end of the European scale are North Macedonia (4.6) and Montenegro (4.3), where majorities of the population are Christian, but Muslims make up sizable minorities. Wealth may explain some of these numbers: These Balkan countries are among the poorest in the region and are not European Union members. Nevertheless, within three of these four countries, Muslims have larger households than Christians.
When it comes to household types, Europe stands out for having the biggest share of people living alone: 13% of Europeans live in solo households, even more than the share of North Americans who do so (11%) and more than three times the global average (4%). European “nones” and Christians live alone at similar rates (14% and 13%, respectively). Though European Muslims are less likely to live alone (7%), they are more likely to live alone than Muslims anywhere else in the world.
Europe also stands out for having a large share of people living as couples without children or any other relatives (19%, similar to North America’s 20%). Living in a couple-only household is the most common arrangement for Christians in several Western European countries, including in Sweden, Germany, France, Finland and the Netherlands, where more than a quarter of Christians live this way. Couples also are the most common arrangement for “nones” in Finland and Germany. Ireland is an exception to this pattern: Irish Christians are three times as likely to live as a couple with children (40%) than as a couple without children (13%).
Muslims across Europe are the least likely group to live in couple-only households, both in Muslim-majority countries such as Kosovo (2%) and in predominantly Christian countries such as Romania (9%).
By the same token, while only about a quarter of all Europeans live with extended family, shares are much higher in Eastern Europe, especially among Balkan Muslims. In fact, Muslims are more likely than Christians or the unaffiliated to live with extended family in every country with sufficient numbers of Muslims to compare (Albania, Belgium, Bulgaria, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Portugal, Romania and Russia) except Serbia, where Muslims live in this arrangement about as often as Christians do. In all of these countries (with the exception of Albania), Muslims are less likely than Christians to live alone.
Latin America and the Caribbean
Latin America and the Caribbean is one of the least religiously diverse regions analyzed in this report, with a large Christian majority (90%), a modest share of religiously unaffiliated people (8%), and small shares of other groups, like Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and Jews.34
Overall, the average Latin American lives in a household of 4.6 people, which is also the average for Christians and similar to Hindus and the unaffiliated (4.4).
The largest households belong to Guatemalans (6.1 people) and the smallest to Puerto Ricans (3.5). The region’s most populous countries are clustered in between, with Mexicans and Peruvians (both 4.9) residing in households that are somewhat bigger than Brazilians’ (4.2).35
Two-parent households (39%) are the most common arrangement in Latin America, followed by extended families (32%). Unlike other regions, Latin America does not stand out for having stark outliers in its distribution across household types: Overall, people in this region are not substantially more or less likely than others around the world to live in, say, solo or polygamous households.
There also tend not to be striking differences between Christians and religiously unaffiliated people or minority religious groups, but exceptions certainly exist.
In Jamaica, the unaffiliated live alone more than twice as commonly as Christians, with 16% of “nones” living solo in a country where only 6% of Christians do. And Hindus living in Guyana, where they make up almost a quarter of the population, have one fewer person per household (4.3 vs. 5.3) and are half as likely to live in single-parent households as Christians in the same small country (4% vs. 8%).
The region’s population is 93% Muslim, 4% Christian and less than 2% Jewish; this report covers seven Muslim-majority nations and Israel, where virtually all Middle Eastern Jews reside. Reliable data on Christians is available only in Egypt and Iraq.
Overall, the average person in the Middle East-North Africa region lives in a fairly expansive household, with 6.2 members. People in Yemen (8.6) and Iraq (7.7) reside in the biggest households, while Tunisians (4.9) and Israelis (4.5) belong to the smallest households.
As is the case in other regions, Muslims live in the largest households (6.3 members), followed by Christians (4.6) and Jews (4.3). There are notable differences even within countries: In Israel, Jews on average live with one fewer person than Muslims do (4.3 vs. 5.2).
The Middle East and North Africa stands out as the region where people are more likely than anywhere else to live in two-parent households. More than half of Middle Eastern Muslims and Christians live in this arrangement (57% and 58%, respectively).
Muslims in the Palestinian territories are the most likely group in the world to live in two-parent families (71%). Israeli Jews do so at about half that rate (35%), making them the least likely group in the region to live in a two-parent household. Even within Israel, Muslims live in two-parent families much more often than Jews, with half of Israeli Muslims in this arrangement.
Israel is different from other countries studied in that it is the only Jewish-majority nation – most Israelis are Jewish, and over 98% of Jews in the region live in Israel. The country also has a longer life expectancy than any of its neighbors, the highest overall levels of education, and a per-person GDP that is more than twice as big as the second-richest Middle Eastern country in this study, Iraq.
Of all the Middle East and North African countries in this study, Israel has the highest share of people who live alone (6%). Israelis also are much more likely than others in the region to live in couple-only households.
Polygamous relationships are legally recognized in at least some circumstances in parts of the Middle East-North Africa region, including several countries analyzed in this report – Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Yemen. In these countries, however, polygamy is rare: Iraqis and Yemenis are the most likely to live in this type of household (2% each). Data is not available from many of the countries where polygamy is legal and presumed to be more common, such as Saudi Arabia.
In North America, Christians account for a majority of the population, while a rapidly growing share identifies with no religion, and fewer than one-in-ten affiliate with Islam, Judaism or other non-Christian religions. The United States and Canada are the only countries included in the North America region in this report; Mexico is included in the Latin America-Caribbean region.
Because the U.S. population is much larger than Canada’s, U.S. household patterns have a much bigger influence on the overall numbers for the region, though the two countries have similar religious makeups and comparable levels of education, life expectancy and economic development.
On average, North Americans live in the world’s second-smallest households, after Europeans, with an average of 3.3 members. Regional figures, available for Christians, “nones” and Jews, show a narrow range of household sizes across religious groups: North American Christians live in slightly bigger households (3.4 people) than their unaffiliated (3.2) or Jewish (3.0) counterparts.
A sufficient number of Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims were surveyed to represent the characteristics of their households in Canada, but not in the U.S., and therefore not regionally. In Canada, these religious minority groups have larger households than Christians (3.2) or the unaffiliated (3.1). Muslims and Hindus live in the biggest households, with an average of 4.4 and 4.3 members, respectively, followed by Buddhists (3.9).
Small shares of North Americans overall live with extended family (11%). However, Canadian Hindus (28%), Buddhists (23%) and Muslims (16%) are more likely than other Canadians to live with extended family. Among the groups with available data in both Canada and the U.S., the religiously unaffiliated are the most likely to reside in extended-family arrangements (14%), followed by Christians (9%) and Jews (6%).
The U.S. share of people living in single-parent families across all religious groups (9%) is among the highest in the world, behind only a handful of countries where the rate is higher: Sao Tome and Principe (15%), Kenya (12%), Jamaica and Rwanda (11% each).36 Fewer North American Jews live in this arrangement than Christians or “nones,” with only 5% in single-parent households. Jews also stand out with a relatively high share of people living in couple-only households – three-in-ten, compared with about one-in-five Christians and “nones.”