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Finding family in a nonmarried world

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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.

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