WASHINGTON – Young adults with college degrees are now more likely to be married than those who are less educated, a reversal of longtime trends as the struggling economy pushes weddings to all-time lows.
About 62 percent of college-educated 30-year-olds were married or had been married, compared with 60 percent of those without a bachelor's degree, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of census data. That is a significant shift from the 1990s, when young adults who didn't finish college were more likely to have wed than their better-educated counterparts, 75 percent to 69 percent.
The median age at first marriage for those lacking degrees has now risen to 28, drawing even with those who are college-educated. As recently as 1990, the gap had been as much as three years apart — age 27 for college-educated, age 24 for those not.
Demographers attributed the shift partly to an economic downturn that has hit lesser-educated workers harder. As a whole, more younger adults are postponing marriage while they struggle to find work, and those lacking college degrees are seeing sharper declines in marriage.
The rising number of unmarried couples choosing to live together — common particularly for those who are not college-educated — is also contributing to the decreases in marriage.
"The labor market has not been kind to young, less educated workers," said Richard Fry, a senior researcher at Pew who wrote the report. "College used to delay marriage. Now, not completing college delays marriage."
He noted that much of the reversal of trends was due to steeper decreases in marriage among white women who were not college-educated — in 1990, 86 percent were married by age 30, compared with 72 percent in 2008. Women with college degrees saw a smaller drop-off, from 73 percent to 68 percent.
Among black women and men overall, those with college degrees have been just as likely to marry than their less educated counterparts for several decades.
— More than 9 in 10 U.S. adults marry sometime in their life. Overall, Americans marry at higher levels than people in most other Western countries.
— Adults with less education are more likely to divorce. About 2.9 percent of adults ages 35-39 without a college degree saw their first marriage end in divorce in the prior year, compared with 1.6 percent of those comparably aged with a college education.
— Married adults are better off economically. The median adjusted income of married adults in one-earner households was about $63,000. That's compared with $53,000 for unmarried adults in one-earner households.
The findings are based on 2008 census data, the latest available for marriage rates broken down by educational level. Census figures for 2009 released last month show marriages continuing to fall to an all-time low, with just 52 percent of adults 18 and over saying they were joined in wedlock.