The future of love and marriage

20/20 foresight: looking to the future

As we move further into the 21st century, it's natural to wonder what the future will bring: In what kinds of houses and communities will Americans be living in 2020? What kind of jobs will people hold? Will fewer of us be married? Writers Kim Campbell, Clayton Collins, Marilyn Gardner, and Elizabeth Lund sought answers to these questions - and more - from eight experts whose jobs require them to predict what our lives will be like in 15 years. Read excerpts from those interviews in this section.

Will the single population continue to grow? If so, what impact will that have on society?

Right now, as we enter 2005, half of all households are headed by unmarried adults, and based on the historical trend [since 1950], by 2020 probably 55 percent of households will be headed by unmarried adults.

The number of solo singles will increase to well over 30 percent of all households by 2020 - some of which will be due to people who are aging and are living alone. If the economy holds up, more people will be able to afford to live alone.

There will be more rights for unmarried people, more flexibility in benefits plans, and there will be a need for more independent living places that provide shared common areas and services such as common meals in dining areas and [on-site] hair salons. By 2020, you'll see more workplaces offering long-term care plans as an option, and a lot of single people will choose that, especially if they're middle-aged and have no kids to take care of them.

We'll be moving closer to universal healthcare (if we do not have it by then), which is good for singles since unmarried people are twice as likely to be lacking health coverage as married people.

More people will choose to remain single throughout life, but marriage won't go out of style. Many more people [will delay] their first marriage until their late 20s or mid-30s, [and] those marriages are more likely to last.

By 2020, the "old-maid stigma" will be just a historical footnote, since significant numbers [of people] will choose to remain single or cohabit, and a lot of these people will be very successful in their lives.

Taxation may change by that point, too, as more unmarried people will question the fairness of the tax scheme. Marital status may be removed from the tax codes as not being fair.

Social Security may be partially privatized by then, and a lot of single people may provide support for that type of a structural change because the rate of return on Social Security is very, very low, and you can get more than that by putting money in the bank. If [Social Security] can be structured in a way that people currently in the system are not hurt too much in the shift, singles will go for this.

[Under the current plan] if a single dies a month before starting to collect, everything is forfeited, since you can't name a beneficiary.

Thomas Coleman is executive director of Unmarried America.

In 2020, will we be marrying more or less often? How might marriage evolve? And how far along will we be in the search for the formula for a happy marriage?

I think we'll be marrying less often, but marriage will still be a common and highly valued way to run a family. [It] will have to compete with other family forms, such as civil unions, which I think will be increasingly important for heterosexuals as well as homosexuals. It seems likely that many states will legally recognize civil unions as a way to provide same-sex couples with many of the rights of marriage. But the experiences of other countries that have done so, such as France, show that civil unions soon become attractive to heterosexual couples, who want an alternative to marriage. And over time, the number of opposite-sex civil unions can greatly exceed the number of same-sex ones. [In general, I see] three possibilities [for marriage]: One is a resurgence of marriage so that it comes to be as dominant as it was in the mid-20th century. I think the chances of that are very low. A second [possibility] is that marriage remains very common and highly valued, but is no longer the only way to have a successful adult family life. I think that's the most likely. But a third is that marriage fades away and just becomes one of many lifestyles, no more common or highly regarded than living with someone. That could happen, because we've seen marriage's dominance fade somewhat over the past several decades. But I think that, in the US, marriage is still strong enough that it will remain distinctive, but not as dominant as it once was.

[In the future] we may have a formula for making marriage more democratic and egalitarian between men and women. But that formula will probably leave us with a less stable kind of marriage than we once had because ... [it's] based on voluntary commitment. People get to choose not only whether they marry, but whether they stay married on the basis of how satisfied they are.

So the trick is to develop marriages that are fulfilling, but at the same time have a good chance of lasting a long time. I think we might be on the verge of a new kind of relationship.

Andrew J. Cherlin is the Benjamin H. Griswold III Professor of Public Policy at Johns Hopkins University. He writes books about marriage and families.

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