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Why Are Fewer Americans Getting Married?

December 30, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Fewer Americans are tying the knot nowadays, according to a new Pew Research report that showed 51 percent of the adult population is married, compared to 1960 when 72 percent of the country was. Ray Suarez discusses the changing demographics of marriage in the United States with Stephanie Coontz of Evergreen State College.
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, our second story on the shifting trends in American life. This one is about the changing demographics of marriage.

Ray Suarez has our conversation.

RAY SUAREZ: For decades, the fact that a sizable majority of Americans were married shaped our politics, where we lived, where we worked and what we thought when we heard the word family.

Recently, the Pew Research Center took a look at all of us over 18 and found just 51 percent are married, down from more than 70 percent in 1960.

Stephanie Coontz has been chronicling the changes in American marriage for a long time. She teaches history and family studies at Evergreen State College in Washington and is director of research on at Council on Contemporary Families.

Professor Coontz, welcome.

We moved in 50 years from almost three-quarters of married adults to barely half. What happened? What’s pushing those numbers?

STEPHANIE COONTZ, Evergreen State College: Well, one of the things that you have to bear in mind is that 1960 was probably the most atypical year in 150 years.

The age of marriage was at an all-time low. Half of all women were married before they got out of their teens. And the rate of marriage was at an all-time high. So, what’s happened since then, primarily what’s driving this is the rise in the age of marriage.

It’s now up to 26 for women and 28 for men. And that’s actually a good thing, because the longer a woman delays marriage, right up into her early 30s, the lower her chances of divorce. But it does totally change the social weight of married households in our economy, our society, our politics.

RAY SUAREZ: But not only has the age at first marriage risen, which, of course, that’s just math. It makes a smaller number of adults married. But the number of people who’ve ever been married has also declined. Has marriage moved from being sort of culturally mandatory to more optional?

STEPHANIE COONTZ: Well, it’s definitely moved to being more optional.

That does not mean, though, that it’s not just as valued — in fact, even more valued — than it used to be, and it doesn’t mean that the majority of Americans will not marry.

I think that probably we’re getting into a situation where a slightly larger number of people will never marry than in the past, maybe 15 percent, as opposed to 10 percent norm and 5 percent in the atypical 1950s. And, of course, we also have some people who will live alone after divorcing.

But, on the other hand, people are marrying for the first time in their 40s, 50s, and 60s at younger — at older ages than ever before. So, for me, the main thing that I think we’re facing here is that you can no longer assume that married couple households are going to be the main places where people make the major life decisions, whether that’s entering into becoming sexually active, buying a house, entering long-term obligations, living with somebody that is a romantic partner, even having a child out of marriage.

So we can no longer assume that married couple households are the only place where people incur obligations, make commitments, and need help in meeting their obligations.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you have talked about these big life moments, but have they responded to the fact that marriage has changed in this way over the last 50 years? Our tax laws, the way we build houses, the way we award property in courts, all kinds of things are still built around marriage.

STEPHANIE COONTZ: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Just look at work family policies that just assume that it’s only married couples who are going to have children, or that just ignore the fact that signals also have responsibility for aging parents. There are so many ways in which we are still acting as though, American families, we’re like 1950s sitcoms, instead of the tremendous diversity.

Most people will marry in America, but most people will spend substantial portions of their adult life outside marriage. It’s a more fluid situation than it used to be. They will move through. They may cohabit for a while. They may get married. They may get divorced. So these are the sorts of things that our social policy and even our emotional expectations of family life have to catch up with these changing realities.

RAY SUAREZ: Along with the long-term trends, there are some short-term ones, too. The number of newlyweds is way down. Is that going to push that 50 percent threshold down, so that married people are a minority of American adults?

STEPHANIE COONTZ: It may. It may. It depends how long this recession and the aftermath of the recession lasts. This is a long-term trend, the decline in the proportion of married couples in the population, but it’s been definitely, I think, exacerbated by the recession.

But, on the other hand, we may see some bounce-back after that, as we have in previous recessions and depressions, when the marriage rate fell.

RAY SUAREZ: How is who gets married shaped by income, education, factors like that?

STEPHANIE COONTZ: Well, one of the things we’re seeing is a tremendous class divide in the access to stable, satisfying relationships, whether married or cohabiting.

And the marriages of college-educated couples have been getting more and more stable. The divorce rates have been falling. But that’s not so for high school dropouts and even increasingly for high school-educated couples.

It seems that one of the issues going on here is that we expect more of marriage than ever before, both as an economic partnership and as an emotional partnership. And as it becomes possible or less possible to count on a man having a steady job — the real wages of high school graduates today are $4 an hour lower in constant dollars than they were back in 1970. They’re much more likely to experience job insecurity, much less likely to have pensions.

So, a woman — low-income women making a decision about marrying such a man has to figure out, well, what are the benefits of this, as compared to the possibility that we might divorce in the future or as compared to what would happen if I invested in my own education and earnings power?

And, so, I do think we’re seeing a class divide that’s quite troublesome. I think that it partly reflects growing economic inequality in our society, but, of course, it exacerbates it as well.

RAY SUAREZ: Stephanie Coontz, thanks for joining us.

STEPHANIE COONTZ: My pleasure, Ray. Thank you.