Noah's ark has long served as one metaphor for American society, with a majority of men and women pairing off two by two and going together through life. But now, statistically at least, that image is changing. The US is becoming a nation of singles.
A new analysis of US Census data finds that less than half of American women – 49 percent – are currently married and living with their spouse. For men, the figure is about 53 percent. By contrast, in 1960 two-thirds of women were married.
Critics who challenge the new figures note that they include girls between the ages of 15 and 19 – a group not typically married in these modern days – and women who are married but not currently living with their husband, as in the case of many military wives. But even allowing for those exceptions, the trend has reached what experts call a tipping point. No longer, they say, is marriage the primary institution in many people's lives.
Sociologists point to a variety of reasons for the shift: delayed marriage, long cohabitation, divorce, and longer lives that increase the years of widowhood. Some analysts describe a "marriage gap" that divides Americans by education or class. College graduates, for instance, are more likely to marry than noncollege graduates. Some analysts note that only about 30 percent of black women live with a husband.
If the ranks of singles continue to grow, they could influence everything from housing to workplace policies to retirement patterns.
All this singleness hardly reflects an aversion to the Noah's ark model. Every year forests fall as publishers churn out books that crowd the Relationship section of bookstores. With titles that range from searching for Mr. Right to finding a husband after the age of 35, they offer advice on how to meet, mate, and marry.
Then there is the multimillion- dollar dating industry, a world of social-networking websites, speed- dating events, matchmaking services, and relationship coaches.
Even the multibillion-dollar wedding industry, for all its lavish excesses, reflects, in part, a touching determination on the part of bridal couples to tie the knot tightly – and forever.
Staying single does not mean a rejection of family. If anything, it can connect families in new, if sometimes difficult, ways.
Adult children who marry later often maintain close ties with parents. And parents whose adult children divorce may find themselves offering everything from a shoulder to cry on to financial assistance and help in caring for grandchildren.
Perhaps the most troubling statistic on singles is the one showing that about 40 percent of first-time births in the US are to unmarried mothers. Despite women's growing economic independence, children still benefit from the security of a two-parent home, protected by that most pro-child institution, marriage.
The yearning for companionship, love, and family doesn't change from generation to generation.
The task at hand is to uphold the significant value of marriage. That includes finding ways to encourage the altar-shy, especially those already with children, to trade cohabitation for permanent commitment and see the value in the solemn, touching vow, "With this ring I thee wed."