What a difference a decade can make. Between 2002 and 2012, Americans became significantly more tolerant of cohabiting, same-sex parenting, and single parenting, according to a report published today by the National Center for Health Statistics.
Americans even became more tolerant of gay sex, although they're more approving of same-sex parenting than of same-sex intimacy. This means, oddly enough, a fraction of Americans are OK with lesbian and gay couples raising children, but not with them actually engaging in sex.
The shifts in attitudes coincide with important alterations in how Americans form families. Compared to a generation ago, Americans now tend to marry later, divorce less, cohabit more, and have fewer children. It's impossible to tell from the National Center for Health Statistics report what came first—the behavioral shifts or the attitude changes. Either way, the statistics offer a fascinating picture of a society in flux.
Below, we've highlighted some of the most interesting trends. The numbers all come from periodic surveys of Americans between the ages of 15 and 44, balanced to be representative of the country's population in terms of gender, age, and race:
- Fewer Americans now think divorce is a good answer to intractable marital problems. In 2002, 46 percent of Americans agreed with the statement, "Divorce is usually the best solution when a couple can't seem to work out their marriage problems." In a survey conducted between 2011 and 2013, 39 percent agreed.
- More Americans are OK with cohabiting. In 2002, one in three Americans didn't think a young couple should live together if they were unmarried. In the 2011–13 survey, a little over one in four Americans disapproved of young couples cohabiting.
- More Americans think it's all right for an unmarried woman to have and raise a child. Women are more likely to hold this view than men. In 2002, about 64 percent of Americans approved of unmarried mothering, if you average together women's and men's views. In 2011–13, 78 percent of women approved of unmarried mothering, as did 69 percent of men. Eighty-two percent of women between the ages of 25 and 34—the age range that would most likely be planning on having children—thought it was OK for an unmarried woman to raise a child.
- Many more Americans think gay and lesbian adults should have the right to adopt children. In fact, out of everything surveyors asked about, attitudes about lesbian and gay parents showed the most dramatic change. Of course, Americans had the farthest to go on this issue in terms of tolerance. In 2002, barely more than half of Americans approved of adoption rights for gay and lesbian parents. In 2011–13, 71 percent approved.
- Yet many Americans still disapprove of same-sex intimacy. In 2002, 42 percent of Americans agreed with the statement, "Sexual relations between two adults of the same sex are all right." In 2011–13, 54 percent agreed. This means 17 percent of Americans believe lesbian and gay folks should be able to adopt, but shouldn't have sex.
Overall, it looks like Americans' support for "non-traditional" families is rising rapidly. But that doesn't necessarily mean we're in a particularly unstable age, as some traditionalists would suggest. Americans' views about the right way to love and build families have always been subject to change.