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For the first time ever, the majority of American adults are single

Kirsten Andersen Kirsten Andersen Follow Kirsten

Now might be a good time to launch an online dating site, as new data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that for the first time since the government began keeping track, the majority of adults in the United States are now single – a milestone reached in the wake of a 35-year trend of waning interest in marriage.

According to the government data, 50.2 percent of American adults are unmarried, compared to only 37.4 percent in 1976.  The percentage of married adults steadily dropped throughout that time, and the trend shows no signs of stopping. 

The numbers are partially driven by divorce and death – roughly 20 percent of adults today report having been divorced or widowed, compared to just 15 percent in 1976 – but the biggest shift has been in the number of adults who have never married.  Nearly a third of adults today have never been married, compared to just 22 percent in 1976.

In a report on the phenomenon entitled “Selfies,” economist Edward Yardeni called the shift “remarkable,” and warned that the rising number of single adults will have  “implications for our economy, society and politics.”

For one thing, singles, particularly younger “Millennials” who came of age during the ongoing recession, are more likely to rent their homes than buy them – a choice associated with much lower levels of community involvement. 

“This is a generation that is scared of commitment, wants to be light on their feet and needs to adjust to whatever happens,” Cliff Zukin, a professor of public policy at Rutgers University, told Bloomberg News. “What once was seen as a solid investment, like a house or a car, is now seen as a ball and chain with a lot of risk to it.”

Perhaps the same can be said about marriage.  More young adults than ever before are delaying marriage or passing on it completely, believing it to be obsolete.  A recent Pew poll found that only 29 percent of Millennials said they believe it’s in society’s best interest to prioritize marriage and kids, compared to 61 percent of people aged 65 and older.

Writing for the Guardian newspaper, Millennial columnist Samhita Mukhopadhyay said she thinks her generation’s aversion to commitment has a lot to do with growing up in the digital age. 

“I blame Tinder,” Mukhopadhyay wrote, referencing a popular dating app that lets users swipe through photos of potential love matches. “In the internet economy, choices are endless (you can always swipe left) – and choosing just one person can be impossible when you are always wondering what else could be out there. I want to believe that the multiplicity of choices has led us all to make more refined decisions, but it probably compounds the feeling of just not being ready to decide quite yet.”

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“Single and ‘loving it’ is hardly the reality,” Mukhopadhyay added.  “These days it’s more like, ‘single and ambivalent while swiping right to questionable men on Tinder.’ I am grateful that retrograde ideas of dating and love are being disrupted by a new generation of people trying to make it work outside the confines of a traditional nuclear family. But, I am perplexed because, despite the infinite choices, it can still feel like you don’t have any.”

Mukhopadhyay’s reference to “retrograde” ideas of dating and love, particularly her description of the “traditional nuclear family” as being somehow “confining,” highlight another major change being wrought by the declining rate of marriage in the U.S.: According to another recent study, there is no such thing as an “average” family anymore.

Researchers with the Council on Contemporary Families found that only 22 percent of children are being raised in the “traditional” arrangement of a married stay-at-home mother and a breadwinner father.  Out of all the possible family types, the most common is a dual-career household led by a working mom and dad, but even these families represent only 34 percent of the whole.  Twenty-three percent of children are being raised by single mothers, only half of whom have ever been married.  The rest are being raised by cohabitating unmarried couples (7 percent), single fathers (3 percent), grandparents (3 percent), or someone outside the family.

Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, told the Deseret News that the increasing trend away from marriage and toward alternative arrangements is cause for concern.

"Kids raised by their own intact, married parents are more likely to flourish,” Wilcox said.  “Given that, public policy should help strengthen both the economic and the married foundations of family life for kids in the United States."

"It's important to note that much of the family diversity today in the United States fuels family inequality,” Wilcox added.  “That's because adults and children in single-parent families are less likely to have and acquire the social and economic resources they need to flourish in contemporary America.”

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