Over the past 50 years, a quiet revolution has taken place in this country. Decades of demographic, economic and social change have transformed the structure and composition of the American family. The pre-eminent family unit of the mid-20th century—mom, dad and the kids—no longer has the stage to itself. A variety of new arrangements have emerged, giving rise to a broader and evolving definition of what constitutes a family.
At the center of this transformation is the shrinking institution of marriage. In 1960, 72% of American adults were married. By 2008, that share had fallen to 52%.
Part of this decline is explained by the fact that the average age at which men and women first marry is now the highest ever recorded, having risen by roughly five years in the past half century.1 And part of the decline is attributable to the near tripling in the share of currently divorced or separated—to 14% in 2008 from 5% in 1960.2
Public attitudes toward marriage reflect these dramatic changes. When asked in the new survey if marriage is becoming obsolete, about four-in-ten Americans (39%) say that it is. In a survey of voters conducted by Time magazine in 1978, when the divorce rate in this country was near an all-time high, just 28% agreed that marriage was becoming obsolete.3
Changes in marital patterns have had a major impact on the lives of children in this country. Marriage is no longer considered a prerequisite for parenthood. Over the past 50 years, the share of children born to unmarried mothers has risen dramatically—increasing eightfold from 5% in 1960 to 41% in 2008.This trend has contributed to the decrease in the share of children under age 18 living with two married parents – to 64% in 2008 from 87% in 1960.4
There are distinctive socio-economic, generational and racial patterns in the trends away from marriage and toward single parenthood and other emerging family forms.
Marriage rates are now more strongly linked to education than they have been in the past, with college graduates (64%) much more likely to be married than those who have never attended college (48%).
The racial differences are even larger. Blacks (32%) are much less likely than whites (56%) to be married, and this gap has increased significantly over time. And black children (52%) are nearly three times as likely as white children (18%) and nearly twice as likely as Hispanic children (27%) to live with one parent.
As the country shifts away from marriage, a smaller proportion of adults are experiencing the economic gains that typically accrue from marriage. In 2008, the median household income of married adults was 41% greater than that of unmarried adults, even after controlling for differences in household size.5 In 1960, this gap was only 12%. The widening of the gap is explained partly by the increased share of wives in the workforce (61% in 2008 versus 32% in 1960) and partly by the increased differential in the educational attainment of the married and the unmarried.6
The net result is that a marriage gap and a socio-economic gap have been growing side by side for the past half century, and each may be feeding off the other. As will be shown in greater detail in Chapter 2, adults on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder (whether measured by income or education) are just as eager as other adults to marry. But they place a higher premium on economic security as a prerequisite for marriage than do those with higher levels of income and education. And this is a bar that they—and their pool of prospective spouses—may find increasingly difficult to meet, given the fact that, relative to other groups, they have experienced significant economic declines in recent decades.
The changes in marriage rates are driven in large part by the behavior and attitudes of young adults, who are both delaying marriage and entering into less-traditional family arrangements. In 1960, 68% of adults ages 20-29 were married. By 2008, only 26% were married. The fact that young adults are delaying marriage does not necessarily mean they will never marry. Only time will tell. Meantime, it’s still the case that the vast majority of adults in the U.S. eventually get married. Among those ages 45 and older roughly nine-in-ten have ever married.
That said, young adults do have much different attitudes toward the trends that are driving family change. Nearly half of those under age 30 (46%) say the growing variety of family arrangements is a good thing, compared with just 30% of those ages 30 and older. In addition, young adults are much more accepting than their older counterparts of a host of societal trends affecting families, from more people living together without getting married to more gay and lesbian couples raising children.
Public Reactions to Decades of Change
The public is aware of the changes in marriage and family that have taken place over the past 50 years—and accepts some more readily than others. There is no clear consensus on the overall merit of the rise of new family arrangements. When asked whether the growing variety in the types of family arrangements is a good thing, a bad thing or doesn’t make a difference, the public is evenly split. A third (34%) say it’s a good thing, 29% say it’s a bad thing and 32% say it doesn’t make a difference.
Where you stand on this issue depends to some degree on how you live. Adults who are living a more traditional family life—married with children—are among the most resistant to the growing variety of family arrangements: 38% say it is a bad thing. Those who are divorced or separated have more of a live and let live attitude: a 39% plurality say the changes don’t make a difference. Those who are living with a partner are largely supportive of the new arrangements: a 56% majority says the growing variety is a good thing.
Of all the changes in family structure, the one that draws the strongest negative reaction is single parenthood. An overwhelming majority (69%) say the trend toward more single women having children without a male partner to help raise them is a bad thing for society. And a majority (61%) still believe that a child needs both a mother and a father to grow up happily.
Other changes get a much better reception from the public. For example, more than six-in-ten (62%) now say that the best kind of marriage is one where the husband and wife both work and both take care of the household and children. In 1977, fewer than half (48%) endorsed this egalitarian template for spousal roles.
And the public is quite open to the idea that marriage need not be the only path to family formation. An overwhelming majority says a single parent and a child constitute a family (86%), nearly as many (80%) say an unmarried couple living together with a child is a family, and 63% say a gay couple raising a child is a family.