The newest minority in California?

Married couples.

For the first time in at least 60 years, a majority of the state's adults are single or separated, according to new federal data.

As recently as the 2000 Census, about 52 percent of Californians 15 or older were married. But 2006 population data released today by the U.S. Census Bureau says that share of Californians has slipped to 48.5 percent this decade as the share of adults who have nevermarried has grown.

From the state's high cost of housing for families, to an increase in opportunities for women, to something as fundamental as our image of love — there is no shortage of reasons to explain the decline.

Californians are waiting longer than ever — and longer than people in many other states — to get married, or they're just skipping it altogether. About three in 10 women in California have never married, a percentage topped only by three other states, according to the new census data. An even higher percentage of men — 38 percent — have never married.

"It by no means indicates that marriage is dead, but I think it's a dramatic way of demonstrating that the past 25 years, marriage has gradually ceased to be the main institution that organizes people's lives," said Stephanie Coontz, author of the 2005 book "Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage.


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In 2006, the median age for women getting married the first time was 26.2 years, the Census Bureau said. But in 1960, half of the women in California were married by age 20. That was back when marriage marked the start of adult sexuality — and the point when many women moved out of their parents' homes.

So what's different? For Odeth Paas, it was seeing too many marriages end: Her parents split when she was 10, and several married friends are now separated.

"Why would you get married if it leads to divorce?" asked the 25-year-old Milpitas accountant, who said she was once engaged herself "I was too young," she added.

But the fact that so many people live alone — about a quarter of California households in 2006 included just one person — is even more striking, some experts said.

"It's a whole lifestyle difference ... people living alone," said Dowell Myers, a demographer at the University of Southern California. "It means there's no one there to help them. It didn't used to be that way in our society."

Considering the later age of marriage, and the time that many people spend divorced or widowed, "most Americans will spend almost half their adult lives outside of marriage," said Coontz, a professor of history and family studies at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. "It doesn't mean they don't value marriage, but it does mean they are going to have to make a lot of decisions outside of marriage."

Across cultures and countries, there is a correlation between women's access to education and work opportunities and women's decisions to delay marriage, she said. The 2006 census data suggests that could be particularly true in California, where 45 percent of women ages 18 to 24 are enrolled in college or graduate school, compared to 36 percent of men.

Population factors could be at work as well; the state is experiencing a surge in the number of adults in their 20s, a group that was much more likely to be married a generation ago than now.

Another factor may be discouraging marriage in California: Depending on your point of view, there either are too many men or too few women. The state has one of the nation's largest mismatches in the number of men and women of marrying age, with about 118 men ages 15 and 44 (the range used by the Census Bureau) for every 100 women.

Of course, the decline in the share of married couples in California is not just a factor of how people decide to live — but also where.

Younger, single adults are over represented in the share of people moving into the state, while married couples are over represented in the flow of people leaving, said Hans Johnson, a demographer with the Public Policy Institute of California. One reason, he said, is the state's high housing costs.

"California is no longer as attractive to married couples and families as it once was," Johnson said. "If you're a married couple, and you've just had a kid and you want to buy a house, it's really tough."

One thing that hasn't changed this decade in California was divorce — virtually the same proportion of adults — about one in 10 — were divorced in 2006 as in 2000.

California probably crossed the 50 percent unmarried threshold a few years ago. But the 2006 census data, including, for the first time this decade, people living in prisons, college dormitories, nursing homes and other "group quarters," was the first data to provide a direct comparison with the 2000 Census.

Because of its power in popular culture, the "nuclear family" ethic of breadwinner Dad and homemaker Mom still holds great sway, Coontz said. But the 1950s arrangement was an anomaly in the history of marriage, further distorted by TV, she said: The age of first marriage in the 1890s was almost as high as it is today, and there were as many single parents in the 1920s as there are now — although it was death rather than divorce creating those single households.

As late as 1967, polling showed that many women held traits such as industriousness — a marker for being able to support a wife — as more important in a potential marriage partner than intelligence or compatibility. But in part because women gained the means to support themselves economically, "that's all changed," Coontz said.

Now, she added, both men and women alike are marrying for love.

"But it also makes it more likely that people will choose not to marry at all, or they will leave a marriage if they don't love the other person," she said. "That is one of the great paradoxes of this change."

MediaNews writer Kim Vo contributed to this report. Contact Mike Swift at 408-271-3648 or mswift@mercurynews.com.