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The `married minority'

October 21, 2006

THERE ARE NOW 300 MILLION of us, and most of us aren't married. On Tuesday, according to census estimates, the 300-millionth American emerged via birth or border crossing. That same day, the media got hold of figures from the American Community Survey (also released by the Census Bureau) finding that married couples account for slightly less than half of the nation's households.

Of the 111.1 million households counted last year, 49.7%, or 55.2 million, were composed of married couples. But that doesn't mean the remaining 50.3% have the freewheeling existence traditionally associated with single life. Census data from 2000 reported a 70% rise from a decade earlier in households composed of unmarried partners living together, 42% of which included their children under age 18. Moreover, the American Community Survey only accounted for people who didn't happen to be married in 2005. Many were previously wed and could well try it again, which could tip the balance ever so slightly back to the married camp.

Still, news of the "married minority" was tossed around the media this week like rice at a wedding, causing singles to revel in demographic triumph and certain conservative groups to fret about the deterrent effect of high divorce rates and the possibility that traditional families may become an endangered species. But the numbers may say more about when we marry, and for how long, than they do about whether we'll ever walk down the aisle. The average age for first marriages is now estimated to be around 27 for men and 25 for women. As for the average length of marriages, some reports put it as low as eight years. That leaves us a long time to not be married, even if we wed repeatedly.

It's possible, however, that marriage's new underdog status may be just the image makeover it needed. Now that it's no longer the default setting for the American dream, young people who once dismissed wedlock as bourgeois might find themselves strangely drawn to it. Marriage is going from mainstream to just a tiny bit alternative -- and maybe that's not such a bad thing. In a country of 300 million, people will want to express their individuality more than ever. As it turns out, getting married may be just the ticket -- it beats tattoos.

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