Once upon a time, the path that had to be followed in order to research a family’s history was simple: siblings and parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great-grandparents, and so on.

But in the 21st century, when family structures increasingly deviate from traditional ideas of what constitutes a family unit, genealogy is being forced to adapt to the changing social climate. With the development of computer programs to record family histories, keeping track the family tree is easier than ever – conventional families are effortlessly added to the software, and most programs can also accommodate divorce, remarriage, adopted children, and step- or half-siblings.

But what about surrogate mothers? Sperm donors? Same-sex parents? How do single parents, civil unions, and unmarried partners fit into the equation? How about children born through in vitro fertilization? And what if cloning becomes a reality?

For better or worse, “family” has changed forever, and there’s an abundance of research to prove it:

  • Studies have shown that, in many places, a large percentage (and in some locations, perhaps, the majority) of households are now composed of unmarried couples, rather than married spouses. In Australia, for example, it is estimated that 40% of the children born in the country are born to unmarried parents.
  • According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the percentage of children under 18 living with two married parents in America declined to 66% in 2010, down from 69% in 2000.
  • As of 2009, 21.8 million children under the age of 21 were being raised by a single parent (26.3% of all children under 21 in the United States).
  • The fertility industry in the United States is booming , resulting in approximately 1 million children in the United States having a sperm-donor father.
  • The adoption rate in the U.S. doubled in the 1990s, and it continues to be a popular option for many parents.
  • 2000 census data showed that 33% of lesbian households and 22% of gay households were raising children.
  • Divorce rates have been climbing steadily, and currently rest at a well-publicized 50% for first marriages. The percentages rise dramatically for second (at least 60%) and third marriages (70% or more).

How the field of genealogy will adapt to the changing face of family is anyone’s guess, but one thing is clear: as the definition of the term undergoes a revolution, genealogical methods and software must adjust to the modern notions of what a “family” really is, or run the risk of becoming an outdated and inaccurate representation of modern ancestry.

One way to help navigate the new world of genalogy is to use an online genalogy service. For more information on a popular option that has all of the latest census data that has been released, read our review of Ancestry.