In just one generation, attitudes toward marriage and family have shifted so dramatically that the very fabric of society has been inexorably altered - leaving pundits and ordinary Americans alike struggling to ascertain whether the changes are progressive or destructive.
To be sure, marriage retains a high regard among Americans: More than 90 percent say it is a highly desirable goal. But with more people delaying matrimony, divorcing, or avoiding wedlock altogether, its standing as "the norm" has slipped.
The change holds major implications, especially for the composition of American families. Only 1 in 4 households now contain married couples with children, down from 45 percent in 1972 - a transformation that affects everything from child-rearing to government policies aimed at families. Liberals and conservatives offer different explanations for the sea change in views on marriage and family. "There is truth to both sides, but the issue that is getting squeezed out of the middle is, 'What do we value?' " says David Blankenhorn of the Institute for American Values, a think tank that is collaborating with scholars to study the transformation.
Two studies released in the past month give a new urgency to their work. First, the US Census released figures showing that, for the first time, the majority of women becoming pregnant with or giving birth to their first child are unmarried. Then, last week a survey by the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center (NORC) found just one-quarter of US households are made up of married couples with children, down from 45 percent in the 1970s.
Trends that took off in the 1960s - such as sexual permissiveness, the large- scale movement of women into the workplace, and the liberalization of divorce laws - are often cited as reasons fewer Americans now fall under the heading of "married with children." Some of the statistical shift, of course, is explained by demographics: As people live longer, they are more likely to be widowed.
The transformation, say observers in fields from sociology to law, has led to a deep schism between those who welcome it and those who lament an erosion of traditional values. But a growing number of people on both sides say the issue simply must be addressed with new laws and other mechanisms that reflect, or stall, such change. Such an examination would affect social policies from flex- time to day care, from welfare to subsidized housing.
At the core of the issue, agree social scientists, are shifting values. Many say the figures warn of a societal weakening of norms connecting marriage with childbearing. They spotlight a loosening of familial stability for children, which decades of research shows is heavily dependent on the steady presence of a father and mother.
"I am astonished by these findings and find nothing but bad omens for children," says David Popenoe, a sociologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey and co-director of the National Marriage Project. "Decades of social research clearly show that the risk factors for children from nonintact families is on the order of two to three times as high in anything you can name - from dropping out of school ... to entering a bad marriage of their own." The forces that contribute to greater societal acceptance of out-of-wedlock births, divorce, and single parenting, are many - and they tend to feed on one another, sociologists say.
Young people contemplating marriage, for instance, may themselves be the product of a divorced family and, therefore, be more wary of tying the knot. Laws that made divorce easier, which came into vogue in the late 1960s, have made the experience less harrowing for many couples. The stigma once attached to divorce has also faded.
Better employment opportunities for women have also paved the way for them to leave bad or tepid marriages - whereas previous generations of women with few job options would have stayed in such unions.
"We are now living out the consequences of the liberalization of attitudes that started with more open sexuality in the 1960s," says Phyllis Cohen of the Canoga Park, Calif., chapter of Parents Without Partners, which counsels single parents. "It's hard to go back to something so strict ... when the prevailing view is relaxed on all these things."
Others hasten to add that some of the statistics can be misleading. For instance, while 18.3 percent of children live with single parents, a much higher rate than in 1972, the figure is has dropped since 1985, when it was 25 percent.
Statistical quibbling aside, many observers say the numbers point to a need to educate the next generation about the meaning and importance of marriage. Maggie Gallagher, author of a recent report called "The Age of Unwed Mothers," sees a new willingness among young people to separate parenthood from marriage, magnifying a more subtle attitude shift in the larger society.
"For three decades we have been declaring war on teen pregnancy by telling teen [girls] to wait to have a baby ... until they graduate or become adult," she says. "But we haven't told them to wait until they get married." As a result, out-of-wedlock births are now increasing among middle-class white women between the ages of 18 and 28.
"These youths are not hostile to or uninterested in marriage," says Ms. Gallagher. "They just don't see the relationship to making a family." She adds, "They see [marriage] as a symbol of true love that doesn't have anything to do with having a baby. It's really quite extraordinary."
Several top scholars also see a societal shift away from marriage as a covenant that couples enter for the sake of the greater society to a more personalized contract between two people. "We are reaping the consequences of the 'me first' society where the needs of the individual are taking priority," Mr. Blankenhorn says. "Thirty to 40 years ago, marriage was viewed as an institution bigger than themselves, that they were expected to conform to. Now they think of marriage as a private relationship between two alone."
Some evidence exists that this trend is slowing and, in some quarters, even declining. Several states, including Louisiana, Arizona, and Florida, have instituted tougher divorce laws or other incentives to prepare couples for enduring marriage. Others are examining tax codes to remove disincentives to marriage, and welfare laws that give benefits to unwed mothers.
But many observers say the causes of change are too broad to be captured in isolated or piecemeal legislation. They urge a broader rethinking of marriage as a veritable cornerstone of a sound and progressive society.
"All this is just one more reminder that we are living in the midst of a massive social experiment," says Mary Ann Glendon, a law professor at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. "We have a historically unprecedented proportion of children growing up in circumstances that are not optimal for producing healthy, well-adjusted persons, and they will be basis of our future political and economic system. That's really the problem."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society