Published December 16, 2011
This week brought a flurry of excited media reports about a new Pew analysis of Census data showing that only 51% of Americans were married. “Marriage Rate in America Drops Drastically,” breathily announced the Huffington Post.
So, where’s the fire? The trends cited in the Pew report have been going on for decades and have more to do when people marry than whether they have given up on the idea.
Yes, as the report shows, the ranks of the unmarried have swelled from 15% in 1960 to 28% in 2010. But look at the fine print: the chart covers everyone “18 and over.” In the past, men and women were far likely to marry in their teens and their twenties. But around 1970 the age of first marriage began to rise steadily until where it is today, close to 29 for men and 27 for women. These are record highs – at least since the last record announced a few years ago.
In other words, Pew’s 51% of unmarried Americans includes a very large number of “not-yet-married” Americans. In fact, what’s striking about Americans is that unlike folks in other developed countries, they still get married if you just give them some time.
According to the economist Justin Wolfers, 81 percent of Americans 40 and older are either married or have been married. That’s lower than the 95% in 1980, but it’s not especially unusual by broader historical standards. And it is considerably higher than in Western Europe.
This most recent brouhaha over marriage, like others before, ignores the most significant shift in American habits. It’s not the widespread rejection of marriage; it’s not even the record number of thirtysomething brides and grooms. It’s the abandonment of the idea that marriage has anything to do with children.
Over 40% of children in the United States are born to unmarried women, the vast majority of them low income and working class. (This is also a number that has been climbing steadily since the late 1960’s.) Most of those mothers are in their twenties. Yet, the large majority of them will marry someday, though maybe not until they’ve had another child, perhaps by another man. No, it’s not marriage they’ve walked away from; it’s the idea that their husband and their children’s father should be the same person.
There was one piece of real news in the Pew study that could conceivably support the simple “marriage-is –dead” narrative. In the year between 2009 and 2010, there was a 5% decline in the number of marriages.
But the writers reasonably speculate that this might be a consequence of the recession. While it’s true that marriage trends remained fairly stable through good times and bad over the past century, rates dropped steeply, though temporarily, during the Great Depression.
It may well be that the current recession is severe enough to change people’s wedding plans. Both birth rates and divorce have also declined during since the recession began. Meanwhile, cohabitation rates have gone up. It all makes sense: babies and separate households are both very expensive.
That’s one reason people still get married – and no doubt always will.
Kay S. Hymowitz is the William E. Simon fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a City Journal contributing editor. She is the author of "Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys."