Fewer Couples Are Going to the Chapel

The number of American couples marching down the aisle to get married is in decline, with just 51 percent of adults reporting that they are married, according to the Pew Research Center and the Census Bureau.

The Pew Center’s study determined that new marriages in the United States fell five percent between 2009 and 2010; the slow economy likely was a contributing factor.  Compare the current record low of 51 percent of married adults with the 72 percent who were in wedded unions in 1960, according to the Pew Center.  The median age at first marriage for brides stands at 26.5 and for grooms it is 28.7.  That is the oldest Americans have ever been when they first married.

Researchers noted the United States is not alone in seeing a significant decline in marriage rates; other advanced, post-industrial societies are seeing the same long-term declines.  The Pew Center said that it is “beyond the scope” of the group’s analysis to “explain why marriage has declined.”

Some respondents just don’t like the idea of marriage. Nearly 40 percent of respondents believe that marriage is becoming an archaic institution.  They also report that in 2010, approximately 61 percent of adults who have never been married would like to be one day.

“The most dramatic statistics to me are when you look at the share of younger adults who are married now compared with in the past,” report author D’Vera Cohn, a senior writer at Pew Research Center, said.  “That’s really been where you’ve seen the big decline.”  Pew researchers analyzed U.S. Census data from 1960 and data from the American Community Surveys from 2008 – 2010.

Flat wages are another factor. “The incentive to get married – because you could rely on a man whose real wages would continue to rise, who would get a pension at the end of it – has been undermined as well,” Cohn said.

According to Census Bureau statistics, 7.5 million couples lived together without being married in 2010, a 13 per cent increase when compared with the previous year.  The financial crisis has forced people to move in with partners.  Marriage rates are highest among college graduates (approximately two-thirds).  Less than half of high school graduates are married.

Not surprisingly, divorce is a factor impacting the ranks of the currently married, although it is unclear how important it has been.  Divorce rates rose in the 1960s and 1970s, but have leveled off in the past 20 years.  Approximately 72 percent of adults have been married at least once, down from 85 percent in 1960.

“If current trends continue, the share of adults who are currently married will drop to below half within a few years,” according to the Pew report.  “Other adult living arrangements-including cohabitation, single-person households and single parenthood-have all grown more prevalent in recent decades.”

“Well, it does not mean that marriage is dead,”  said Stephanie Coontz, a historian on family life at Evergreen State College in Washington state.  Many of those 20-somethings will sooner or later tie the knot.  “But what it does bring home to us is that we can no longer pretend that marriage is the central organizing principle of society. We have to take account of the many, many social networks and relationships that people cycle through, marriage being just one of them,” Coontz said.

“This marks a continuation of a long term trend,” said Paul Taylor, executive vice president of the Pew Research Center.  “If this trend continues, we are approaching a turning point where fewer than half of all adults in this country will be married.”