Marriage Rate in America Drops Drastically
Barely half of Americans over the age 18 are married, according to a new report from the Pew Research Institute. The number of couples married in 2010 dropped a startling 5 percent from the previous year, and the overall number of married couples has declined by more than 20 percentage points since 1960.
The report, released Wednesday, showed that Americans are not only getting married less frequently, they’re doing so later in life. These findings mirror those observed in the UK in November, where researchers found that only 48 percent of adults there were married.
But what does this mean for society? And why does it matter at all?
What are the major findings in this report?
We looked at three aspects of marriage and all of them had pretty notable numbers to them. We looked at how many adults are currently married — among people over 18, how many of them have a spouse — and we found that barely half of all adults now are married. That’s declined quite a bit from the past. In 2010, again it was barely half — 51 percent — in 1960, it was 72 percent. The second thing we looked at was how many marriages are taking place from one year to the next. We have some recent data about that from the last few years from a census survey. So our second finding is that from 2009 to 2010, the number of marriages declined by five percent, which is a pretty notable decline. We don’t know why, we can’t really say for sure that it’s the recession or bad economic times, but it’s certainly one more sign that marriage is less important than it used to be in the lives of Americans. The third thing we looked at was how old are Americans when they get married for the first time. Among men who get married for the first time, half are nearly 29 years old or older, and among women who marry for the first time, half are about 27 years old or older. Back in the baby boom days it was early-20’s, in the 1990’s it was mid-20’s, now we’re talking late-20’s, which means we’re seeing a substantial number of people not get married until their 30s for the first time.
Why aren’t people getting married?
There are a number of things going on that could play a role. One is that there are other kinds of living arrangements that are socially acceptable now that may not have been in the past, such as living with someone without being married, living on your own, or even living as a single parent. So people may feel they have options that they didn’t used to have. Another factor in some cases is that among Americans who complete college, or education beyond that, they may want to get their education done and get launched in a career before they settle down and get married. From some surveys we’ve taken, we’ve had people say that it’s important, at least for men, to be financially able to provide for a family before they get married. It may [also] be that some couples feel they don’t have the financial wherewithal to have a wedding yet.
Why does it matter that people are getting married less or later in life?
Economically speaking, married couples tend to have more income and more wealth. Some of that might have to do with who chooses to get married, that is, people who are educated have less of a decline in their marriage rates than people who are less educated. We also know that the kind of partnership marriage encourages is one in which you plan for the future, share your assets, build wealth together. There isn’t that evidence yet for people who live together. So it would be of concern if there’s a growing gap between people who are married and people who aren’t, in terms of the wealth and income that they have. Another thing to think about is that many of our organizations and institutions are built on the assumption that people are married, that doesn’t mean that they can’t change or shouldn’t change, but it means there would be some adjustment. The third thing to think about is the living conditions and well being of children. There’s research indicating that children have a higher likelihood of turning out well if they come from a household where their parents are married. Most children turn out well regardless of whether their parents are married or not, so I’m not at all trying to suggest that children will turn out badly if their parents aren’t married. But there’s a somewhat higher likelihood that they will face issues, and some of those may include economic hardship.
So that’s why this matters. But who does it matter for?
It might matter for their children; it might matter for the institutions that they operate in, such as their employers and the nation’s tax base. If, for example, people who aren’t married are less able to build wealth, then that will affect the overall wealth of the country.
In your report, you note that about 40 percent of people overall said they believe marriage is obsolete, including 31 percent of married people — that’s surprising. Can you tell me more about that finding?
It kind of makes sense that people who are married would be less inclined to think marriage is obsolete than people who aren’t. It also makes sense to me that people who are younger, who are growing up in an era where marriage is less common, would also be more likely to think that marriage is becoming obsolete. I’m also struck by the fact that a large percentage of people who say that marriage is obsolete still want to get married. I think they may be having two ideas in their head at once: one about the institution of marriage and what its status is in society today, which is to say that it’s a lot less dominant, central or important in society, [and another about] their own wishes for their future, in which they personally would very much like to be married.
What are the larger social implications of this trend?
It hasn’t happened here yet so we don’t know. You might look to some countries in Europe, but their social institutions are different because there are many countries over there where there’s a well-established tradition of cohabitation that has some legal recognition. The legal rights of people who live together might be, if not equivalent to marriage, at least close, so there would not be concerns about inheritance or health benefits. This trend that we observed in our report is something that has been happening in a number of developed countries. [In] some of those countries, the Scandinavian ones especially, many people just live together and the assumption is that that’s just about an equivalent state to marriage. It’ll be interesting to see whether, in this country, whether we move more to that or whether we continue to have a kind of two-tiered system where marriage has the most recognition and legal benefits, and cohabitation is somewhat lower.
Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Matrimonial, Divorce and Family Law Attorney.