We know that marriage has been losing “market share” in the sexual culture of the developed world so the news that barely half of American adults today are married comes as not much of a surprise.
What is surprising in the Pew Research Center anaylsis of new Census data is the speed with which the number of new marriages seems to be dropping — by 5 per cent between 2009 and 2010, although this may be related to the economic recession.
A long-term decline has brought the proportion of married people (age 18+) in the US from 72 per cent in 1960 to just 51 per cent today. Other adult living arrangements—including cohabitation, single-person households and single parenthood—have all grown more prevalent in recent decades.
In the United States, the declines have occurred among all age groups, but are most dramatic among young adults. Today, just 20% of adults ages 18 to 29 are married, compared with 59% in 1960. Over the course of the past 50 years, the median age at first marriage has risen by about six years for both men and women.
It is not yet known whether today’s young adults are abandoning marriage or merely delaying it. Even at a time when barely half of the adult population is married, a much higher share— 72%—have been married at least once. However, this “ever married” share is down from 85% in 1960.
Pew notes that marriage “has declined far less for adults with college educations than among the less educated. 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”. However, “there are indications that adults who are not college graduates also are marrying later.”
Last year’s State of Our Unions report from the National Marriage Project focused on the marriage gap between the most educated and lesser educated Americans. The project’s director, Professor Brad Wilcox, has some sage comments on the latest marriage figures in a report on ABC News. He notes that the rise of cohabitation amongst those without college degrees has serious consequences for children:
“In the minds of Americans, getting married and becoming parents are two different things,” he said. “Their top priority is being a parent, second to having a successful marriage. People have separated the two things. Years ago, they were closely linked to one another.”
“The bottom line is that kids are experiencing more instability and more hardship because the adults are less likely to get and stay married,” Wilcox said.
It seems to me that focusing on the couple relationship at the expense of children has made it easier for society to accept same-sex marriage as well. Then, once the “marriage” bit is accepted, who can deny such couples what others have: children.