Why a Little Less Marriage Might Be a Good Thing

  • Share
  • Read Later
Hitoshi Nishimura—Gettyimages

In America, getting married is not nearly as popular as it used to be. (In case you have missed our several bulletins heralding this, you can catch up here.) Now, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis released on Dec. 14, marriage rates have hit a historic low.

Only a smidgen over half of Americans are currently married, down from 72% in the 1960s. Between 2009 and 2010 alone, the marriage rate declined by 5%. It’s not entirely clear what’s behind the drop — the Pew researchers’ data-crunching suggests that this is one area in which the economy is not playing a huge role — but the ebbing of interest in marriage does have several interesting features. And some of them suggest that a little less marriage-mania might be a good thing for the institution in the long run.

Let’s be clear: a majority of unmarried people — 61% — still want to get married, even some of those who don’t have a very rosy view of the institution. Almost half — 47% — of people who think marriage is becoming obsolete nevertheless still hope to get hitched, as do a roughly equal percentage among people who don’t think the coupled life is passé. The biggest marriage naysayers, no surprise here, are the formerly married. Only 27% of them want to get on that train again.

MORE: The Five Secrets of Happily Married Parents

Mostly, the Pew report suggests, the declining rate of marriage has a lot to do with age. “Among adults ages 18-24, the number who recently married dropped 13% between 2009 and 2010,” write D’Vera Cohn and Wendy Wang in the report, which included data from the Census and American Community Survey. Numbers are also down for those in the 24-to-35 age range and those 45 and older. But among folks aged 36 to 45, getting married is as popular as ever, if not more so.

The median age at which people marry is also rising, to 28.7 for men and 26.5 for women, the highest it’s ever been. Only 9% of 18-to-24-year-olds were married in 2010, compared with 45% in 1960. But marriage is not like network TV, where you have to get viewers in their youth, or lose them forever. In fact, less buy-in by young people may not actually mean the end of marriage so much as the end of fewer marriages. Isn’t it possible that a higher median age at marriage might mean people are being more judicious before they jump into a binding lifelong contract with another human being?

Even the racial disparity in marriage rates may have something to do with age. More than half (55%) of white people are married, compared with less than half (48%) of Hispanics and about a third (31%) of blacks. The disparity is significant, but since a larger proportion of the black and Hispanic populations are younger, it may not be as marked as it looks, Cohn and Wang note.

MORE: Top 10 Short-Lived Celebrity Marriages

And finally, education and marriage are becoming increasingly linked. People with college degrees are more likely to disagree that marriage is becoming obsolete and more likely to be married. In 2010, 64% of college graduates were married, compared with 48% of people with some college and 47% of those with a high-school degree or less. “Some of the increase in the median age at first marriage over the long term can be explained by the rising share of young adults enrolled in college, who have tended to marry later in life,” says the report.

It’s clear that the trends TIME noted in its cover story this time last year are not dissipating. But that doesn’t mean the tide has turned against marriage forever. The institution is losing its status as a social obligation, but not necessarily its desirability. Indeed, since marriage is now largely practiced among high-status, college-educated individuals, it may even be becoming more prestigious — the relationship equivalent of owning a luxury car.

Today, people no longer feel the pressure to marry that their forebears felt. They can choose what makes them happier — singleness or coupledom — without fear of social opprobrium or poverty. Fewer marriages formed largely by external social pressures probably means fewer divorces. Isn’t that right Ms. Kardashian?

MORE: Wealth Matters: People with Stuff Are More Likely to Marry

Belinda Luscombe is an editor-at-large at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @youseless. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.