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Living Single; Changing views

By Jane AndersonStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 18, 1983

The United States is experiencing a groundswell of change in its perception of the single life. The social stigma of remaining single is diminishing as more young adults postpone or forgo marriage to continue education or pursue a career.

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According to a study recently released by University of Michigan researchers Arland Thornton and Deborah Freedman, the ''legitimacy of singleness as a life style is increasingly recognized by young people and their parents.'' This acceptance of single life as a valid alternative to marriage represents a ''marked attitudinal shift'' in the US over the past two decades, the researchers report, with similar trends observed in western and northern Europe, Canada, and Australia.

''Women who never wanted to be wives or have children have the option now. Men are able to marry later and not make a forced early marriage just to maintain status in society,'' says J.L. Barkas, author of ''Singles in America'' (New York: Atheneum).

''There is still a trace of the feeling a woman hasn't been asked or a man hasn't found the 'right one,' but that is changing,'' she says.

According to US Census Bureau figures, slightly over 25 percent of all American households are composed of persons living alone or with non-relatives. The total number of single adults, defined as those not living with a legal spouse, has risen 26 percent since 1971 - from 43.8 million in 1971 to 55.8 million in 1979.

These numbers reflect, in part, the growing numbers of divorced people who prolong the time between marriages or do not remarry at all; widows and widowers (the largest group); those following what one sociologist calls ''the fallacious doctrine of open marriage;'' and young adults postponing marriage. The singles image

Following the high-water mark of family solidarity in the 1950s, media hype exalted the single life style in the '60s and '70s touting fewer responsibilities, sexual freedom, and more spendable income.

''The hoopla of the overly positive press has done as much to hurt singles as the negative image. The single is not the depressive or the swinger. Both (images) decrease the chance of seeing singles for themselves,'' says Miss Barkas.

Despite the media image of glorified singleness, David Reisman, professor of social sciences at Harvard University, sees a ''return to the belief that being single is not all that glamorous.''

Young Americans may be postponing a marriage decision, but according to the Thornton-Freedman study, they are not rejecting marriage as an institution, and 90 percent expect to marry at some time in their lives. The major change, the researchers say, is the rising age at which they will marry. Postponing marriage

Dr. Reisman believes the prevalence of divorce affects the way young people look at marriage. ''Children of divorced parents may be concerned about the stability of marriage and hesitant to make a commitment,'' he says.

The tendency to postpone marriage in favor of establishing a career or further education figures prominently in the decisions of many young people today. According to the Thornton-Freedman report, which was based on an 18-year study of Detroit families and several national studies, education was given a high priority over getting married right away by all respondents. Eighty to 90 percent of all respondents said they believed that it was very or somewhat important to work full time for a year or two before getting married. Fewer than 4 percent rated it as not important at all. Effect of the women's movement

The affluence and independence of young working women today has affected the marriage rates. In her book ''Single in America,'' J. L. Barkas writes that it used to be only men who wanted to establish themselves in careers, achieve a good income, and travel before settling down. Now more women are opting for a ''life before marriage,'' and fewer are willing to put husbands through college or graduate school by taking low-level jobs. Unfortunately, she says, some career-oriented singles (both male and female) find they are paying the price of a life that has overemphasized work.