By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
A new study conducted by the Pew Research Center has found that attitudes toward marriage are changing in America, but two-thirds of Americans remain optimistic about its future.
The study, entitled “The Decline of Marriage and Rise of New Families” found some alarming new trends in family life in America, such as how out-of-wedlock birth rates have climbed from five percent in 1960 to 41 percent in 2008, how cohabitation rates have doubled since 1990, and how alternative families are becoming increasingly accepted.
But not all of the news was bleak. For instance, according to the study, only five percent of Americans under the age of 30 do not plan on marrying and an overwhelming percentage of Americans say family is the most important element in their life.
Even though the mainstream media has chosen to report only the bad news, the report is definitely a mixed bag of both good and bad news.
To follow are a few of the key findings from the study:
• Is Marriage Becoming Obsolete? Nearly four-in-ten survey respondents (39%) say that it is; in 1978 when Time magazine posed this question to registered voters, just 28% agreed. Those most likely to agree include those who are a part of the phenomenon (62% of cohabiting parents) as well as those most likely to be troubled by it (42% of self-described conservatives). Despite these growing uncertainties, Americans are more upbeat about the future of marriage and family (67% say they are optimistic) than about the future of the country’s educational system (50% optimistic), its economic system (46% optimistic) or its morals and ethics (41% optimistic).
• The Resilience of Families. The decline of marriage has not knocked family life off its pedestal. Three-quarters of all adults (76%) say their family is the most important element of their life; 75% say they are “very satisfied” with their family life, and more than eight-in-ten say the family they live in now is as close as (45%) or closer than (40%) the family in which they grew up. However, on all of these questions, married adults give more positive responses than do unmarried adults.
• An Ambivalent Public. The public’s response to changing marital norms and family forms reflects a mix of acceptance and unease. On the troubled side of the ledger: Seven-in-ten (69%) say the trend toward more single women having children is bad for society, and 61% say that a child needs both a mother and father to grow up happily. On the more accepting side, only a minority say the trends toward more cohabitation without marriage (43%), more unmarried couples raising children (43%), more gay couples raising children (43%) and more people of different races marrying (14%) are bad for society. Relatively few say any of these trends are good for society, but many say they make little difference.
• The Rise of Cohabitation. As marriage has declined, cohabitation (or living together as unmarried partners) has become more widespread, nearly doubling since 1990, according to the Census Bureau. In the Pew Research survey, 44% of all adults (and more than half of all adults ages 30 to 49) say they have cohabited at some point in their lives. Among those who have done so, about two-thirds (64%) say they thought of this living arrangement as a step toward marriage.
To read the full report, visit “The Decline of Marriage and Rise of New Families.”
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