Los Angeles -- Hear ye. Hear ye. Susanna Shuster, 38, is single and satisfied.
No, really. For those willing to listen, she gladly will list her reasons for eschewing society's matrimony-mommy mandate:
A greater sense of independence, the chance to set her own agenda and the freedom to stay out all night without feeling guilty about not calling home.
She views marriage as a possible enhancement of life, not a necessity.
"It's not going to make me any happier; I'm happy already," the Universal City lawyer said.
"There are people who would say I'm not being honest with myself. The traditional notion is that if you are by yourself you can't have a good time. But that's really passe. It seems the longer I stay single, the less I'm inclined to give up that lifestyle."
Ms. Shuster is part of a growing number of Americans staying single longer.
According to Census Bureau figures, the number of men and women ages 30 to 44 who have never married more than doubled during the last 20 years. The number of women jumped from 5.5 percent in 1970 to 13.3 percent in 1991. The number of men went from 7.6 percent to 18.9 percent during the same period.
In the 30-to-34 age range alone, the numbers nearly tripled -- going from 6.2 percent to 18.7 percent for women and from 9.4 percent to 27.3 percent for men.
The median age of people who do marry went from age 20.6 to about 24 for women and from age 22.5 to about 26 for men, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
The Census Bureau also raised its estimate of the number of people who will never marry from 5 percent to 10 percent, the highest it has been since the 1940s.
Sociologists attribute the increases to the rise in financial independence of women, the growing acceptance of alternative lifestyle choices and the downfall of the economy -- which provides less incentive to get married.
"People's understanding of families, sexuality and intimacy is changing," said USC professor of sociology Barrie Thorne. "The '50s ideal of Ozzie and Harriet has been undermined, partly by social and political movements that challenge that old nuclear family ideal and partly by the changes in the labor force that make women more independent and less likely to marry."
Dr. Thorne said that, in today's society, it is more legitimate for couples to live together without marriage, more acceptable to have children out of wedlock and easier to lead a gay or lesbian lifestyle. And the widespread availability of contraception and abortion have reduced the number of unwanted pregnancies -- once a major reason for marriage.
But, for many people, the decision to remain unwed comes down to one big advantage: freedom.
"You can do what you want, go as you please," said Debi Orteg, 40, of Simi Valley. "You don't have anybody to worry about but yourself."
Ms. Orteg, an insurance claims assistant, said she can support herself and doesn't feel the need for a husband's companionship.
"I have my friends -- both male and female -- for that," she said. "And when I'm not with someone else, I'm really content to be by myself. I've come this far without being married, and I don't want to give up my independence quite yet."
Although Darren Young, 41, has had many relationships and currently has a girlfriend, he said he never has been close to marrying.
"I enjoy the freedom to pursue my lifestyle without having to worry about fitting into someone else's," the West Los Angeles advertising photographer said.
"I'm not opposed to marriage; I would welcome it if it landed in my lap. But I don't want to get married until I'm sure it's going to work.
"I'm very picky. I've seen a lot of friends whose marriages have gone sour. And I really don't have the desire to have children and introduce them to a world that's so messed up. Maybe I'm just being too careful."
Ms. Shuster said her commitment to a single lifestyle was tested during a tough period in October, when the marriage of her best friend was followed three days later by the sudden death of her father.
"I would have thought that that was a time when I would have missed not having a husband," she said. "But I didn't. I turned to my friends for support and really found that they can help me get over any emotional hurdle.
"I found that looking to marriage for an answer to sadness, loneliness or insecurity is not the right way to go."
Sociologist Ms. Thorne said other advantages to staying single longer include the emotional maturity gained through previous relationships and the financial growth established in a career, both of which can enhance a marriage later on.
On the other hand, women who wait to get married and have children after age 40 can develop fertility problems.
Ms. Orteg and Ms. Shuster both feel that there still is time if they choose to have children.
"As each day goes by, I'm always hearing about women at 45 and older having children," said Ms. Shuster, who is not precluding the idea of adopting or having her own child without marrying. "For most women my age, that thought crosses their minds often."
There are other disadvantages to single life, although many singles may have trouble admitting them, said Jeffrey Ullman, president and founder of Great Expectations, a national video-dating service headquartered in Encino.
"Nothing is wrong with being alone," Mr. Ullman said. "It can be enriching, rewarding and enjoyable and can cause tremendous self-growth. However, it has a very ugly, nasty and debilitating side, and that is being lonely when you don't want to be alone.
"Loneliness is a killer, quite literally. There is no question that there is a higher suicide rate for singles over 40."
Mr. Ullman said singles feel the most anxiety and loneliness when they are sick and during any special occasion, such as a birthday, holiday or job promotion, when they want to share their feelings with someone important in their lives.
He said that singles over age 30 often proclaim their happiness to hide their unhappiness.
"Given a choice between being in a trusting, loving relationship or not, I believe that 100 percent of singles of any age would prefer the former," he said.
But Ms. Thorne said that is a generality that isn't accurate.
"There is a prejudice against people who are not married," she said. "People automatically think they are unhappy. But it is a lifestyle choice they make, and they often are very content."
Ms. Orteg agreed.
"I was brought up to get married and have kids, and it totally backfired," she said. "I didn't do any of it, and I'm still happy.
"I don't know if I'll get married. If it happens, it happens. But I do know I'll be happy either way."