Woodruff: Why Are Marriage Rates in Sharp Decline?

BY Judy Woodruff  December 15, 2011 at 9:16 AM EDT

Some remarkable things have been happening to the institution of marriage in the United States — and far fewer people are jumping into it.

Among young people aged 18 to 24, only 9 percent were married in 2010, plummeting from fifty years earlier, when the number was 45 percent. Among the next older group of adults, aged 25 to 34, 44 percent were married last year — just over half the percentage in 1960, 82 percent. These are among the findings in a new Pew Research Center analysis, based on U.S. Census Bureau data.

Overall, only half of all adults in the United States are married, a record low. The portion that has “ever” been married is 72 percent, but that’s down from 85 percent a half century ago. And the median age at first marriage is as high as it’s ever been since the Census Bureau first published statistics: 26.5 years for brides, and 28.7 for grooms. That’s six years older for men and women today than in 1960.

The phenomenon of fewer people marrying — and waiting longer to marry — applies to all ethnic and racial groups. But the sharpest declines have occurred among those with the least education: nearly two-thirds of adults with college degrees are married, while just under half of those with a high school education or some college are married.

The Pew report says “it is beyond the scope” of its analysis to explain why marriage has declined, but it offers a few hints. More young people are enrolled in college, long a factor in delaying marriage. “Fallout from the Great Recession” is also likely a factor. Citing research by the Russell Sage Foundation, the report claims the link between marriage rates and the poor economy is not clear. But it is hard to believe that the growing numbers of young people moving back home with mom and dad to cut the cost of living are in a hurry to find a spouse.

It’s also well-known that the percentage of young people unemployed is higher than for adults overall — another factor that would discourage tying the knot. In fact, the report notes that other developed nations, especially in Europe, are also seeing the same trend — countries that are struggling economically.

But the trends that are making records today got their start decades ago, and they’ve remained consistent through economic ups and downs. Factors like the increased acceptance of unmarried adults living together, and the increased independence of women, are surely playing a role.

Still, I confess to being surprised that the drop in marriage rates has been so dramatic, but I shouldn’t be. I know from my reporting a few years ago on the Millennial Generation that this is a group determined to do things its own way. In their view of marriage, and in the number of children they have — the birth rate dropped to its lowest point in at least a century last year — today’s young Americans are saying they plan to follow a different path.

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