It's hard to figure us Yanks out, my British friends say. We still go simply gaga over royal weddings like the upcoming nuptials of Prince William and Kate Middleton. Yet we historically rejected royalty -- and increasingly we're even rejecting marriage.
Alas, 'tis true. Americans still see marriage as important, but we're not as high on it as we used to be, according to a nationwide poll and census data analysis by the Pew Research Center in association with Time magazine.
In 1960, 72 percent of American adults were married, the study found. By 2008, that share had fallen to 52 percent. And the proportion of those surveyed who said they think marriage is becoming obsolete jumped by 11 percentage points to 39 percent since a similar poll was taken in 1978.
Three conclusions in particular stand out in the new survey: Marriage has become least fashionable among the young (43 percent of those under age 50 called marriage obsolete, compared to only 33 percent of us over-50s). It is most fashionable among the better educated. And it is seen as less essential criterion than ever in how Americans define a "family."
We obviously have come a long way -- for better or worse -- in our views of marriage and family since the late 1960s. Back then, I recall national magazines profiling with no small sense of alarm how some Ivy League students from upper-crust families were (Gasp!) living together off-campus without the benefit of marriage!
By the end of the 1970s, co-ed dormitories were becoming the norm even in public universities. Although critics warned that Western civilization would end, universities were relieved to have a new way to lure students back to dorms that suddenly had been depopulated by the end of the draft.
Against that backdrop, it is illuminating to me that Pew found almost two-thirds of college graduates to be married, compared to only 48 percent of those who have never attended college. Whatever role collegiates played in devaluing marriage, we seem to be endorsing its durable merits today. Perhaps a new generation can start a new trend, making marriage cool again in the way that rap stars are attracted to fancy cars, watches and other bling. We can only hope.
In the meantime, what we call a "family," Pew found, increasingly includes unmarried, same-sex, single-parent or childless couples -- or any combination of the three.
What does that mean for the future of American culture? For one thing, it makes us sound more like Europe, where marriage rates also have been sliding in recent decades -- especially in Scandinavia, which also has some of the most generous government social programs.
Changes in traditional family life in Europe don't get as much attention here as I think they should, perhaps because it defies too many of our usual political stereotypes, whether from the right or the left. Liberals hate to acknowledge how much a generous government safety net can undermine the traditional need for moms to have husbands. Conservatives don't like to acknowledge that many two-parent households manage to raise children quite well without a formal marriage.
Yet unmarried dads in places like Scandinavia appear to be abandoning their kids and families much less often than American dads do. Cultural differences matter. Perhaps we will get a clearer picture of the differences between the two cultures when the Census Bureau makes announced changes next year to broaden its own definition of what constitutes a family. For the first time, the bureau says it will count as a family unit unmarried couples, same-sex partners and foster children who are not related by blood or adoption.
It's about time. Before we can figure out where American family life is going, we need to get a better idea of what it is.