"This churning, this turnover in our intimate partnerships is creating complex families on a scale we've not seen before," said Andrew J. Cherlin, a professor of public policy at Johns Hopkins University. "It's a mistake to think this is the endpoint of enormous change. We are still very much in the midst of it."
Yet for all the restless shape-shifting of the American family, researchers who comb through census, survey and historical data and conduct field studies of ordinary home life have identified a number of key emerging themes.
Families, they say, are becoming more socially egalitarian over all, even as economic disparities widen. Families are more ethnically, racially, religiously and stylistically diverse than half a generation ago — than even half a year ago.
In increasing numbers, blacks marry whites, atheists marry Baptists, men marry men and women women, Democrats marry Republicans and start talk shows. Good friends join forces as part of the "voluntary kin" movement, sharing medical directives, wills, even adopting one another legally.
Single people live alone and proudly consider themselves families of one — more generous and civic-minded than so-called "greedy marrieds."
"There are really good studies showing that single people are more likely than married couples to be in touch with friends, neighbors, siblings and parents," said Bella DePaulo, author of "Singled Out" and a visiting professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
But that doesn't mean they'll be single forever. "There are not just more types of families and living arrangements than there used to be," said Stephanie Coontz, author of the coming book "Intimate Revolutions," and a social historian at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. "Most people will move through several different types over the course of their lives."
At the same time, the old-fashioned family plan of stably married parents residing with their children remains a source of considerable power in America — but one that is increasingly seen as out of reach to all but the educated elite.
"We're seeing a class divide not only between the haves and the have-nots, but between the I do's and the I do nots," Dr. Coontz said. Those who are enjoying the perks of a good marriage "wouldn't stand for any other kind," she said, while those who would benefit most from marital stability "are the ones least likely to have the resources to sustain it."
Image: Multi-colored picket fence, via Shutterstock