Adapted with permission from "The Emerging 21st Century American Family" by Tom W. Smith.

Over the last three decades the American family has been undergoing a profound and far-reaching transformation. Both family structure and family values have been changing and as a result of these changes, the American family is a much-altered institution.

Overall Trends in Marriage:

While still a central institution in American society, marriage plays a less dominant role than it once did. The proportion of adults who have never been married rose from 15 percent to 23 percent between 1972 and 1998. When the divorced, separated, and widowed are added in, three quarters of adults were married in the early 1970s, but only 56 percent were by the late-1990s. The decline in marriage comes from three main sources.

First, people are delaying marriage. Between 1960 and 1997 the median age at first marriage rose from 22.8 to 26.8 years for men and from 20.3 to 25.0 years for women.

Second, divorces have increased. The divorce rate more than doubled from 9.2 divorces per 1,000 married women in 1960 to a divorce rate of 22.6 in 1980. This rise was at least in part caused by increases in female, labor-force participation and decreases in fertility. The divorce rate then slowly declined to 19.8 in 1995. The drop in the divorce rate in the 1980s and 1990s has been much slower than the rapid rise from the 1960s to the early 1980s and, as a result, the divorce rate in the 1990s is still more than twice as high as it was in 1960. Even with the slight recent moderation in the divorce rate, the proportion of ever-married adults who have been divorced doubled from 17 percent in 1972 to 33-34 percent in 1996/98.

Third, people are slower to remarry than previously. While most people divorced or widowed before the age of 50 remarry, the length of time between marriages has grown.

Fourth, both the delay in age at first marriage and in remarriage is facilitated by an increase in cohabitation. Cohabitors represented only 1.1 percent of couples in 1960 and 7.0 percent in 1997. The cohabitation rate is still fairly low overall because most cohabitations are short term, typically leading to either a marriage or a break-up within a year. But cohabitation has become the norm for both men and women both as their first form of union and after divorces. For women born in 1933-1942 only 7 percent first lived with someone in a cohabitation rather than in a marriage, but for women born in 1963-1974, 64 percent started off cohabiting rather than marrying. The trend for men is similar. Among the currently divorced 16 percent are cohabiting and of those who have remarried 50 percent report cohabiting with their new spouse before their remarriage.

Changes in Attitudes and Values

Partly in response to and partly as a cause of these structural changes, attitudes towards the family have also shifted. Many important family values regarding marriage and divorce, childbearing and childrearing, and the duties and responsibilities of husbands and wives have changed.

Marriage and Divorce:

Marriage is the core institution of the American family, but because of the structural changes described above it no longer occupies as prominent a role in either people's adult lives or in childbearing and childrearing. Moreover, is impact on the quality of people's lives is changing. On the one hand, married people are much happier with life in general than the unmarried are. While 40 percent of the currently married rate their lives as very happy, the unmarried are much less happy (percent very happy: widowed--23 percent, divorce--19 percent, separate--16 percent, never married--23 percent). In addition, married people are happier in their marriages (62 percent very happy) than they are about life as a whole (40 percent very happy). On the other hand, there has been a small, but real, decline in how happy people are with their marriages, from about 68 percent very happy in the early 1970s to a low of 60 percent very happy in 1994. Since then there may be a slight rebound in marital happiness (up to 63.5 percent in 1998). Also, people are less likely to rate marriages in general as happy and are more likely to say there are few good marriages.

The importance that people accord marriage is also shown by a reluctance to make divorce easier. Only a quarter to a third have favored liberalizing divorce laws over the last three decades, while on average 52 percent have advocated tougher laws and 21 percent keeping laws unchanged. This opposition to easier divorce probably contributed to the leveling-off of the divorce rate in the early 1980s noted above, but has not led to a general tightening of divorce laws or a notable drop in the divorce rate.

However, people also do not favor trapping couples in failed marriages. In 1994 47 percent agreed that "divorce is usually the best solution when a couple can't seem to work out their marriage problems," 33 percent disagreed, and 20 percent neither agreed nor disagreed. Additionally, in 1994 82 percent agreed that married, childless couples who "don't get along" should divorce and 67 percent that even parents who "don't get along" should not stay together.


Overall, the shift from traditional to modern family structures and values is likely to continue. The basic trends have shown little signs of subsiding, cohort turnover will continue to push things along, and cross-national differences indicate ample room for further movement. This is especially true of the shift from dual-earner couples and egalitarian gender roles. The impetus towards single-parent families is less certain. The divorce rate has stabilized, albeit at a high level, and both non-marital births and pre-marital sexual activity have stopped raising and may be falling. These factors will tend to curb the continued growth of single-parent families, although they are not likely to lead to their decline.

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