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For Your Marriage

Marriage Today covers current trends and research pertaining to marriage and family life in today's world.

Study Finds Big Reversals in Marriage Patterns

Marriage patterns among young adults in the U.S. have undergone two important reversals since 1990, according to a new Pew Research Center report titled “The Reversal of the College Marriage Gap.”

I suspect many will find good news and not-so-good news in these reversals — good news in particular about college-educated women and troubling news about what has come to be known as America’s present-day “marriage divide.”

In its Oct. 7 report, the Pew Center said:

1. College-educated young adults in 2008 were “more likely than young adults lacking a bachelor’s degree to have married by the age of 30.” This reverses the pattern witnessed throughout the 20th century when college-educated adults in the U.S. were “less likely than their less-educated counterparts to be married by age 30,” the center said.

2. “Young women with college degrees are now just as likely as less-educated women to marry.” This was not the case in 1990, when “less-educated women were more likely to marry.”

Moreover, it appears that college-educated women today marry at more or less the same age as their counterparts with less formal education, though in 1990 those with more college education tended to marry at an older age.

A number of commentators interpreted this as a sign that higher education for women no longer places them at a disadvantage in terms of marrying, as was long believed the case. Richard Fry, author of the Pew report, called this “a historic reversal,” the Washington Post reported.

Of course, it is well known that young Americans today tend to marry at an older age than recent generations did. So, the reversals identified in the Pew report need to be interpreted against the backdrop of a declining number of marriages overall among adults in their 20s.

The Pew center said that marriages among Americans in their 20s “have declined sharply since 1990 for both the college educated and those without a college degree.” This decline, however, has been “much steeper for young adults without a college education.”

And it was the case as recently as the year 2000 that there was a two-year gap in the ages at which those with and without a college education married. At that time, the Pew report says, “the typical college-educated adult” married at the age of 28, while “the typical adult lacking a college degree” married at the age of 26. However, by 2008 that gap had closed. Why?

One possible explanation is found in “the declining economic fortunes of young men without a college degree and their increasing tendency to cohabit with a partner rather than marry,” the Pew report said. In other words, in light of dimming income prospects, many men in this group choose cohabitation over marriage, at least for a time.

In this regard, the Pew report seems to call attention to what others are labeling the “marriage divide” in today’s America. I discussed this complex cultural development in an Aug. 1, 2009, news report in this space after social scientist Barbara Defoe Whitehead addressed the annual conference of the National Association of Catholic Family Life Ministers.

One current and troubling trend related to marriage in America is the statistical divide between the marriages of college-educated and noncollege-educated couples, Whitehead suggested to her audience. She said statistics indicate that marriage is becoming a form of privilege, since college-educated couples are more likely than the noncollege educated to marry, to be happily married and to experience low divorce rates.

Whitehead described this social development as a divide between “the marriage haves” and “the marriage have-nots.” She attributed it to several factors, among them the decrease in high-wage, blue-collar jobs. She observed:

“Young men, if they can’t find steady, reliable work, are not considered good marriage material by women and even by themselves; they don’t feel prepared to support a family.”

The Pew Center’s new report noted that “the inflation-adjusted median annual earnings of college-educated men ages 25 to 34 rose by 5 percent” between 1990 and 2008. However, the median annual earnings “of those with only a high school diploma declined by 12 percent” during the same period.

And during the same time period the number of unmarried, cohabitating couples “more than doubled.” Citing 2004 U.S. Census Bureau data, the Pew center said that “about half of all cohabiters are under age 35, and more than 80 percent do not have a college degree.”