The Guardian (UK), January 17, 2007
By Suzanne Goldenberg
DATELINE: Washington -- The institution of marriage in America is in serious decline, and a slim majority of women now live without a spouse, new census data show.
Some 51% of women above the age of 15 were living without a spouse in 2005, a sharp rise from the 35% who were on their own in 1950, the halcyon days of the American family, the census data says.
"The institution of marriage that has been written down legally and that used to be the support for women - emotionally, financially - is not something they want to take to as lightly or as early as they had in the past," said William Frey, a demographer at Brookings Institution.
"They are much more likely to be cautious about getting into that situation."
Of the more than 117 million American women above the age of 15, 63 million are married, according to an analysis of the data that appeared in yesterday's New York Times.
Some 3.1 million of these women are legally separated and 2.4 million women are married to husbands who are not actually living at home because of work or other obligations.
That reduces the number of women living with a spouse to 57.5 million, compared with 59.9 million women who live without a spouse or whose spouses were not living at home when the survey was taken in 2005.
Some of the women had simply outlived their husbands, a demographic pattern that has been a constant for some time.
But Mr Frey said the new data was evidence that a tipping point had been reached in American society. Marriage is no longer the social norm.
Amid the tumult of the 1960s and 1970s, the institution of the family was a focus of baby boomers' rebellion.
Forty years later, that backlash and the growing economic independence of women, have produced a generation of women who see choices other than marriage.
They were raised to make their own living, and to be accepting of the prospect of living with a partner outside marriage - even though such unions do not provide the same legal and financial protections.
Men and women are waiting until they are well into their 30s to marry, or may choose to live together instead. In 1950, some 42% of women below the age of 24 were married; by 2000, the figure had fallen to 16%, the census data found.
Even those a few years older appear to be in no rush to the altar. The proportion of married women between the ages of 25 and 34 fell to 58% in 2000 from 82% in 1950.
Those women who do marry and go on to divorce take longer to remarry than men, or may choose to live with a partner without being legally married.
Figures showing the declining incidence of marriage were even more pronounced among African-American families, with only 30% of women living with a spouse.
Among more recently established communities in the US, the marriage rates were higher, with 60% of Asian woman living in married households.
The fifties version of family life was in itself an aberration.
The fifties were the heyday of married life, with a rush to pair up and procreate that was in part a function of postwar optimism and economic boom.
In the years since then, demographers say that social forces have created a society where women no longer need to rely on husbands for financial support, and where there is increasing scepticism about the institution of marriage.
That combination of trends has created a society where people spend roughly half of their adult life alone - a solitary state that in earlier years would have been the norm only during times of immense upheaval, such as wartime.
Mr Frey acknowledged that while the rebellious baby boomers may have led the drift away from marriage, their children and grandchildren when they come of age may have a different approach.
But he said: "I don't think we are ever going to go back to the 1950s. That dominant social norm is gone forever."
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