01/20/2007 09:24 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

All Grown Up (and Unmarried)

It's just a data point, but as stats go, this one's a doozy: "51% of women are now living without a spouse." So sayeth the headline of a piece in Monday's New York Times now prompting much hand-wringing over the changing makeup of the American family.

This increase in unmarrieds is just an uptick - the number was 49% six years ago - but it's being greeted as a terrifying sign of social collapse among the conservative-minded - indeed, it's framed as a terrifying tipping point in the ever-descending path of the American family. It's a Phyllis Schlafly nightmare: faithful wives outnumbered by swinging single gals, cohabitating girlfriends and merry widows.

But beyond the knee-jerk conservative hysteria and demographic shifts at work here (census takers cite co-habitation, longer lifespans and declining rates of remarriage after divorce or death), it seems to me there's a more primary force driving the change: the reinvention of the American grown-up. It's worth remembering that marriage was, as recently as the mid-1960s, the single defining right of passage into adulthood. For most, getting married meant moving out, having sex, starting a family, the lot. Today, of course, we're free to sample all those freedoms outside marriage. Weddings are still important, of course, but today they're less announcements of maturity than party-down pageants (exhibit A: Disney's Fairy Tale Weddings).

So it's no wonder declining rates of marriage work the traditionalists into such a lather. Times columnist David Brooks chimed in yesterday , arguing that women are now afraid to get married (the sissies) because matrimony signals an end rather than a beginning. His solution? To persuade people that marriage is "less a state of sacred bliss, and more a social machine." One can only imagine a young Mr. Brooks approaching his beloved, bending down on one knee, and uttering the sage advice from his own column: "Accompanied with the right instruction manual, (marriage) can be useful for achieving practical ends." Oh, swoon!

Of course we're not, as Brooks suggests, witnessing the disintegration of the American family. Rather we're seeing the continuing evolution of what it means to be an adult. What was once rigidly understood in terms of familial relationships is now tailor-made, up-for-grabs, loosey-goosey. The increasing number of unmarried women are not, by and large, stunted. They're not digging their head in the sand and refusing to accept maturity - many in fact are working mothers who go to great lengths to care for their kids, partners and themselves. They are, in short, grown ups - just not the sort observers like Brooks want them so very much to be.

Read more from Christopher on the Rejuvenile blog