Several Factors Contribute to Declining Marriage Rate
by David Gibson
The percentage of U.S. adults who are married has reached a “record low,” the Pew Research Center reported Dec. 14. It said that “barely half” — 51 percent — of the nation’s adults now are married. By contrast, in 1960 some 72 percent of adults were married.
“If current trends continue, the share of adults who are currently married will drop to below half within a few years,” according to the Pew center’s analysis, which drew upon its own past surveys and U.S. Census Bureau reports.
The Pew report immediately seemed to become a topic of discussion everywhere. Newspapers and the network TV news covered it. Radio talk shows found it of great interest. “Many More Say I Don’t,” one headline read. Another spoke of the slumping marriage rate.
Truthfully, there did not seem to be a lot that was new in the Pew report. A downward trend in the overall percentage of adults who are married is well documented.
The Pew report did confirm that from 2009 to 2010 the rate of new marriages in the U.S. declined by 5 percent, “a sharp one-year drop that may or may not be related to the sour economy.”
Many want to know what the declining marriage rate means. Catholic leaders are concerned about the decline in the number of couples coming to the church to wed, as well as about research showing that the percentage of adult Catholics who are married approximates that of adults in general. And Catholic leaders want to protect the institution of marriage because of its invaluable contribution to society’s well-being.
Frequently enough, researchers ask people if they believe marriage is becoming obsolete. The Pew report itself raised this question. But it indicated there are reasons to be cautious about jumping to conclusions.
One reason for caution is that so many people who affirm the coming obsolescence of marriage go on to state that they hope to marry one day. I cannot help wondering if they suspect marriage is becoming obsolete for others, but not for them.
Young Adults Delaying Marriage
One can only conclude that the current trend among young adults to marry at older ages serves to reduce the overall percentage of currently married adults. The Pew center said:
“The age at which Americans marry for the first time has been rising for decades. In the 1960s, most men and women married in their early 20s. In 2011, the median age at first marriage is in the late 20s.”
Consider this: When the Census Bureau collects statistics on the lives of the nation’s adults, its definition of an “adult” typically includes anyone 18 or older. So when it comes to the marriage rate, 18- to 24-year-olds factor into the equation.
Yet, so many fewer adults in that youthful age group are married nowadays. In fact, fewer and fewer 25- to 29-year-olds are married. I suppose many will marry later, however.
I wonder how many people who heard a report in mid-December on the Pew center’s analysis heard this sentence from it: “It is not yet known whether today’s young adults are abandoning marriage or merely delaying it.”
The Pew center reported that “by age group, the decline in the proportion of currently married adults is most dramatic for the young. Only 9 percent of adults ages 18-24 were married in 2010, compared with 45 percent in 1960.”
Underlining the speed of the marriage decline among adults less than 25 years of age, the Pew center cited data showing that the number of them “who recently married dropped 13 percent between 2009 and 2010.”
Even “among adults ages 25-34, fewer than half (44 percent) were married in 2010,” the Pew center said. Compare that with the 82 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds who were married in 1960.
Other Factors in the Marriage-Rate Decline
I do not mean to suggest that the marriage-rate decline would evaporate if young adults up to the age of 25 — or even 29 — were removed from the rate calculations. After all, the Pew center said that while “most Americans in their mid-30s onward are married,” the proportions for them also “have declined notably since 1960.”
In any event, a number of social realities contribute to the marriage-rate decline. This development is complex.
For example, other “living arrangements — including [nonmarital] cohabitation, single-person households and single parenthood — have all grown more prevalent in recent decades,” the Pew report noted. The divorce rate also is a factor when it comes to calculating the percentage of currently married adults.
Education, too, plays a complicated role in the marriage rate. Young adults often delay marriage to pursue further education. At the same time, the Pew center noted that “by education level,” while the likelihood of ever having been married “has declined for all groups,” it has declined “most sharply for the least educated.”
And as other researchers have found, the Pew report said that “adults with college degrees (27 percent) are much less likely than those with a high school diploma or less (45 percent) to agree that marriage is becoming obsolete.”
The attitudes of the American public toward “the institution of marriage are mixed,” the Pew report said. Citing a separate Pew survey from 2010, it noted that nearly 39 percent of Americans “say marriage is becoming obsolete,” though in the 1970s, just 28 percent agreed with that statement.
Despite such a grim prediction, the same 2010 Pew survey found that 61 percent of people who never have married would like to do so at some point. And even 47 percent of the unmarried adults “who agree that marriage is becoming obsolete” say that they would like to wed.
About the author
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.