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America becomes a more 'adult-centered' nation

A new survey finds a decreased emphasis on children in marriage.

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Kids just aren't as big a part of American life as they used to be.

Americans' child-free years are expanding as empty-nest seniors live longer and more young adults delay – or skip – childbearing. In 1960, nearly half of all households had children under 18. By 2000, the portion had fallen to less than a third, and in a few short years it's projected to drop to a quarter, according to a report from the National Marriage Project.

Children are also taking a back seat in perceptions of marriage's purpose. Since 1990, the percentage of people who said children were very important to a successful marriage tumbled from 65 percent to 41 percent. The findings were released in a Pew Research report last week.

For some child-free Americans, their growing numbers argue for greater equality with parents in government benefits, the workplace, and social esteem. That worries family researchers and child advocates who see in the same trends a move to a more "adult-centered culture" – one that threatens the strength of families and the social compact to provide for the next generation.

"We are getting much more of an adult-oriented culture than has ever existed arguably, and that could prove problematic," says David Popenoe, codirector of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "You can envision a society in which children are kind of an afterthought and not in the interests of society as a whole."

He sees the priorities reflected on television: Almost gone are family sitcoms in favor of a generation of programs following the model of "Friends" and "Sex and the City."

And he worries about a shift at the ballot box. In New Jersey, voters rejected nearly half of school budgets in the state last year – the lowest passage rate in more than a decade, according to a report from Mr. Popenoe's center.

Harder for child advocates

With parents a smaller presence at the polls – just under 40 percent in the 2004 presidential election, some child advocates say it's getting harder to win empathy on issues.

"It's not: Do people love children? It's: Are they thinking about them?" says Robert Fellmeth, director of the Children's Advocacy Institute at the University of California San Diego School of Law.

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