Forty years ago unmarried mothers accounted for only 5 percent of births in western Europe and English-speaking countries; today that proportion is about 30 percent. The increase has been accompanied by the spread of cohabitation, more so in Europe than in the U.S., and indeed in some regions, such as Scandinavia, the distinction between legal marriage and cohabitation has been fading.
The causes of this historic development are even now not fully understood, at least in its American manifestation, but increased sexual permissiveness beginning after World War II is surely involved. Also among the developments that may have contributed to the rise in unwed motherhood in the U.S. is the loss, beginning in the 1960s, of relatively unskilled but well-paying manufacturing jobs. In working-class neighborhoods, young men capable of supporting a family became ever more scarce. Black men, who were just starting to participate in the industrial economy in the 1940s and 1950s, found it particularly difficult to get good jobs. Yet according to one estimate, the lack of decent jobs cannot explain more than a fifth of the nonmarital births among black Americans.
This article was originally published with the title Going Solo.