Column One:
Eye on Unmarried America

July 16,  2007  



America less focused on kids, more on adults

By Thomas F. Coleman

American society was very centered on marriage and highly focused on children in 1970 when more than 70 percent of the nation's homes contained a married couple.  That year, the Census Bureau reported that more than 40 percent of homes consisted of married couples with minor children.

Those demographics have drastically changed.

Last year the Census Bureau reported that a majority of the nation's households are now headed by unmarried adults.  And according to 2005 census data, there are 30 million one-person households as compared to 24.1 million with a traditional nuclear family consisting of a husband, wife, and child under 18. 

Looking at all household variations in the nation, the most recent census figures show that only 35 percent of American homes contain a child under 18 years of age.  Statistics from the Department of Labor show that working parents with minor children account for only 35 percent of the nation's workforce.

According to the National Marriage Project, the demographics will continue to change until, in a few more years the percent of American households without children will climb to 75 percent.

A report released last week by the Pew Research Center indicates that more than demographics are shifting.  Attitudes are too.

In a 1990 Pew survey, 65 percent of Americans said that having children was "very important" to a good marriage.  Back then, having children was third on a list of nine factors often associated with a successful marriage.

In this year's survey, only 41 percent listed having children as very important to a happy marriage.  It ranked eighth out of nine factors.

At the top of the list of the new survey were "sharing household chores," "good housing," "adequate income" and "faithfulness."

Last week the Christian Science Monitor published a story entitled "America becomes a more 'adult centered' nation."  The author, Ben Arnoldy, interviewed me for it.

"When child-free adults and their advocates look at the political and cultural landscape, however, they still see inequalities that favor married families and children despite the demographic shifts away from Ozzie and Harriet's day," Arnoldy wrote.

I explained to him that workplace benefits were at the forefront of a struggle for more fairness for employees without children.

For example, so-called family-friendly policies such as flex leave and day-care options not only give more benefits to workers with children, but child-free workers also can find themselves picking up the slack for co-workers on family leave.

With workplace demographics changing so that two-thirds of the nation's workforce have no children at home, businesses have begun shifting from "family friendly" policies to more neutral "work-life" programs. Some companies, for example, give all employees the same amount of paid time off, while others create cafeteria-style benefits, and many offer generic benefits like gym memberships that all workers can utilize.

But unlike many private employers who are adapting to changing workplace demographics and attitudes, the American government seems stuck in the Ozzie and Harriet mode when it comes to public policy. 

There are many government policies which treat the child-free like second-class citizens.  Take the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, for example.  Parent-child relationships are covered, but siblings are not.  

The Social Security Administration gives a $255 death benefit to help pay for the burial of a worker who leaves a surviving child or spouse, but nothing to help a surviving sibling bury a single person without kids.  The military treats personnel with children more favorably than those without.

"No one is advocating ignoring the needs of children or those who are raising children," I told the Monitor.  "That's important to everyone in society whether you have children or not, but things have to be more balanced."

Part of that balancing act, I explained, is taking into account that 19 percent of women in their early 40s are childless. That's up from 9.5 percent 26 years ago.

Vincent Ciaccio, a spokesman for No Kidding!, an international group for people without children, told the Monitor about certain causes among the childless, including government subsidies for birth control, holding parents responsible for their children, and the establishment of child-free areas in restaurants, movie theaters, and apartments.

With more adults choosing to delay marriage, many foregoing parenting altogether, and older Americans spending more years in their child-free years, I suspect that we will be hearing more about the need to revise workplace benefits and government policies.  Things are not quite balanced yet.

To read other editions of Column One, click here.

Unmarried America 2007

Thomas F. Coleman, Executive Director of Unmarried America, is an attorney with 33 years of experience in singles' rights, family diversity, domestic partner benefits, and marital status discrimination.  Each week he adds a new commentary to Column One: Eye on Unmarried America. E-mail: Unmarried America is a nonprofit information service for unmarried employees, consumers, taxpayers, and voters.