Is Marriage Dead?
No, but it's becoming an elusive luxury for more and more Americans sliding down the economic scale.
By Bettijane Levine 02/01/2012
The statistics are startling: The proportion of adults of all ages who are married has dropped to the lowest level recorded in the 100-year history of the U.S. Census Bureau. And the marriage rate of young adults (ages 25-34) has
plunged so low in the last decade that the number who are not married now exceeds the number who are — a dramatic reversal in trend.
• From 2000 to 2009, the percentage of young adults who are married dropped dramatically, from 55 percent to 45 percent. The number of young adults who have never been married rose sharply, from 34 percent to 46 percent.
• In the 1950s, about 80 percent of America’s adult population was married. Today, the figure is just about 50 percent — and only 20 percent of all households are Ozzie-and-Harriet–style families composed of married parents and their offspring.
• The number of couples living together without benefit of marriage continues to climb, the census shows, along with the number of children produced by those cohabiting couples.
Those are just a few of the shockers revealed by the bureau’s 2009 American Community Survey and 2010 Current Population Survey. So what does it all mean? And what’s love got to do with it? In broad terms, fewer people are marrying, and at later ages; more are electing to stay single for a variety of economic and cultural reasons. And yet the search for love and commitment seems as strong as ever. People still seek partners, some form of commitment and family structure — although not necessarily in the context of marriage. It’s a huge departure from what used to be the norm. “The new numbers are pretty significant,” demographer Mark Mather told Arroyo Monthly. Mather is associate vice president of the Population Reference Bureau and co-author of the PRB’s analysis of the latest Census Bureau marriage statistics. “We knew fewer young adults were getting married even before the recession began. But the fact that this trend accelerated so much during the recession really took us by surprise,” Mather says.
The report attributes the steep marriage decline in large part to the bad economy. “Young couples are delaying marriage or forgoing it altogether as an adaptive response to the economic downturn and a decline in the housing market,” the authors wrote.
But dig deeper into the statistics and you’ll find a number of even more fascinating developments:
Marriage in the U.S. used to be an almost universal imperative. “In the 1950s, if you weren’t married, people thought you were mentally ill. Marriage was mandatory. Now it’s a cultural option,” Andrew J. Cherlin told The Washington Post. Cherlin is a professor of sociology and public policy at Johns Hopkins University and a respected authority on trends in American family life.
His observation seems to capture America’s new attitude, as echoed in thousands of tweets, blogs and posts that appeared when the census figures made headlines last spring. Unmarried folks celebrated news that seemed to validate their single way of life — and reinforce what they’d been saying all along: Better to be unwed and independent than stuck in connubial contract with a possibly mismatched mate. “Just wait until you have accrued quite a lot of assets and have to confront yourself with ‘what if it ends in divorce,’” Bruno posted on Dec. 20 in an online chat on Feministing.com, an online community of young feminists. On PRB’s website, Grover3606 wrote: “I certainly have concerns about marriage. As the male and the likely major source of income, I’m not sure putting myself in such a financially risky position is worth it no matter how much I love her. I’ve been with her for 4 years now, but I’m not sure the next step is worth it.”
Bruno and Grover may be a bit behind the times. The PRB census report points to an increase in women’s earnings relative to men’s and says that “as women’s wages have increased, fewer women rely on a spouse or partner to provide a weekly paycheck. Women now outnumber men in U.S. colleges, and a recent report by the Pew Research Center showed that there is a rapidly growing number of women who out-earn their husbands,” especially in lower income categories. “It’s not just that folks aren’t getting married as much, it’s also that they’re questioning the entire institution,” Maya Dusenbery posted on Feministing.com. “Thirty-nine percent of all adults and 44 percent of young people said they believe that marriage is obsolete… I’m excited by this news.”
Joanne Koegl, a Pasadena-based marriage and family therapist, says her clients definitely don’t fit the new mold. “They come to me because they want to get married, or to fix the marriages they already have. My single clients want to fall in love, tie the knot and start stable families. All very traditional,” she says. “But I meet beautiful young people all the time who just can’t seem to find anyone.” That’s partly because men especially seem more and more reluctant to settle on any one woman, she says. “No matter who they meet, and how much they like her, they feel there might be someone even better if they keep looking. It’s like a candy store out there. With social networking, they have their pick. And with the media emphasis on beauty, they focus first and foremost on the face.”
So is marriage really in its death throes? Absolutely not, say the experts — at least not for those who are well educated and financially secure. In fact, the most important and disturbing aspect of the census report lies buried beneath the big-picture statistics:
Experts discovered what they perceive as a deepening class divide in America — an educational and economic schism between those who marry and those who don’t. Those who marry nowadays tend to be college graduates who automatically have better skills and job prospects than those without a higher education. Those who don’t marry are more often people who never went beyond high school.
It’s the exact opposite of what was the norm up until a decade ago. Up until the 1990s, Mather says, those who never went to college had higher rates of marriage than those with college degrees. In other words, they left high school, hurried to the altar and started having children.
Now it’s the other way around. College graduates tend to marry more. And their rate of divorce is declining. Those with only a high school education increasingly elect to live together and raise children in an unformalized family structure, which analysts say leads to less stability and poorer outcomes for all involved. The cohabitors, who tend to be lower income and financially insecure, fear for their jobs or have already been laid off. And they lack the skills needed to increase their prospects. Their children are less likely to attend college. It’s all leading to an increasingly divided, two-class society, experts say. “There are growing and clear class distinctions developing,” says Mather. “It’s a rift seen not only in income but in lots of social indicators. There’s segregation by educational level, by neighborhood, even by schools their children attend.”
Professor Cherlin, currently on book leave and declining interviews, has made his views known in online discussions. Asked to identify the most significant change in American families in the past 10 years, he answered: “The most significant change is the rise in births to cohabiting couples… having children in a cohabiting union is now acceptable to a broad range of young adults. Trends in the job market have made young non-college-educated youths reluctant to marry.”
Other experts agree, explaining that high-school-educated women as well as men are avoiding matrimony. Many of these women have jobs and feel they can support themselves and their children if necessary. They don’t want to be legally tied to a man they might also have to support. For men too, there’s appeal in the perceived ability to break away from family responsibilities. Analysts feel this could lead to an increasingly unstable society of haves and have-nots — with the offspring of cohabiting couples suffering the worst consequences.
Professor Cherlin noted in his online discussion that the growing numbers of children born to unmarried parents will find it increasingly difficult to attend college no matter what their intellectual capacity, leading to an even bigger schism. “The problem will be worse for children who would like to attend selective colleges such as the University of California system, where costs have been rising rapidly. Attendance at selective colleges may become more and more the privilege of well-to-do families, while children from disadvantaged families attend less selective schools part time, taking five, six or seven years to get a degree, while working to support themselves and pay tuition. A dual educational system.”
William Frey, senior demographer at the Brookings Institution, analyzed census figures and told The New York Times that in 2000 there were only six American states where married couples made up fewer than 50 percent of all households. In only 10 years’ time, by 2010, that number had risen from six to 37 states plus the District of Columbia, all now dominated by the unhitched.
Where is this heading? It’s important to note that the institution of marriage isn’t the culprit. Experts blame the economy — the lack of jobs, educational opportunity and financial security — as the cause of the drop in marriage rates. As far as we can tell, everyone’s still looking for love, commitment and a better future for their kids. And in most surveys published, even the most contented singles — of all ages, both straight and gay — say they wouldn’t reject marriage “if the right person came along.”