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Is it a hiccup or a long-term bear market for marriage?
A new report shows that the share of American adults who are married dropped to a record low in 2009-2010 — to just a smidgen over half of population 18 and older. And the age at which Americans first tie the knot has never been higher, according to analysis of U.S. Census data by Pew Research Center published Wednesday.
It’s no secret that the “market share” of marriage has been in decline for decades — from 72 percent in 1960 to 51 percent today, a trend that has been accompanied by a rising tolerance for single parents, cohabitation without marriage and other alternatives. At the current pace, the share of U.S. adults who are married will dip to less than half within a few years, the Pew study says.
"There’s been a retreat from marriage going on for awhile now," says Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. "The economic fallout from the Great Recession has made the retreat from marriage accelerate. That’s just because even today, Americans see marriage at least in part as an economic undertaking. So particularly when partners, especially men, don’t have decent stable work they are more likely to postpone or forego marriage."
More dramatic news from the report was a 5 percent decrease in the number of new marriages between 2009 and 2010, an unusually sharp one-year drop that “may or may not be related to the sour economy,” according to the Pew study.
Over the long haul, the marriage rate for the 18-29 age group has fallen from 59 percent in 1960 to 20 percent today. Divorce rates soared in the 1960s and '70s, becoming a major factor in the growing contingent of singles in the United States but then leveled off in the last two decades.
Wilcox says that divorce rates remain high, and declines in marriage are particularly concentrated in lower income brackets. He calls the trend the "de-institutionalization of the working class."
"Strong marriages and strong families flourish in a healthy economic and community context. Those contexts have weakened particularly in working class and poor communities in the last 30-40 years," Wilcox said. "People are less likely to be engaged in stable fulltime work, their church community, the JC."
The age of first marriages has climbed to a record high of 26.5 for brides and 28.7 for grooms, Pew reports.
“It is not yet known whether today’s young adults are abandoning marriage or merely delaying it,” the study said.
"I think that unlike Europeans, Americans have for the last 40 years still held onto their belief in marriage, but their expectations of what marriage can deliver have increased," says Wilcox of the University of Virginia. "They are desperate to get married but picky about who they will marry and under what conditions, and more tolerant of (behaviors) outside the marriage norms. Mr. Right or Mrs. Right never comes along, so they're willing to have a baby even if Mr. Right isn’t there."
Expectations take a hit after divorce, apparently. The Pew study says that a majority of adults who have never been married hope to get married (61 percent), compared with just 26 percent of adults who have been married but were single again.