Delaying marriage more than ever

As I was tying the knot last year, most of my peers were not, according to a new study that suggests the recession has accelerated a decline in the number of people getting married.

The number of young adults ages 25 to 34 who are married dropped from 55 percent to 45 percent from 2000 and 2009. The percentage who have never been married increased from 34 percent to 46 percent, so the proportion of young adults who have never been married now surpasses people who are married.

The Associated Press released a generic roundup of the results with a brief mention of the marriage numbers.

Take marriage.

In America, marriages fell to a record low in 2009, with just 52 percent of adults 18 and over saying they were joined in wedlock, compared to 57 percent in 2000.

The never-married included 46.3 percent of young adults 25-34, with sharp increases in single people in cities in the Midwest and Southwest, including Cleveland, Phoenix, Los Angeles and Albuquerque, N.M. It was the first time the share of unmarried young adults exceeded those who were married.

That’s about all we get on marriage–some significant numbers but hardly a significant mention. The most ironic part of this story comes at the end.

The census figures come weeks before the pivotal Nov. 2 congressional elections, when voters anxious about rising deficits and the slow pace of the economic recovery will decide whether to keep Democrats in control of Congress.

Remember me why must all implications be seen through an election cycle? Why not consider, for instance, the implications that the researchers suggest?

These trends are significant because marriage is associated with many benefits for families and individuals, including higher income, better health, and longer life expectancy. One reason for these benefits may be that people with higher potential earnings and better health are “selected” into marriage, resulting in better outcomes for married couples. However, most researchers agree that marriage also has an independent, positive effect on well-being. Therefore, the recent decline in marriage may contribute to worse outcomes for less educated individuals, beyond those resulting from the recent recession.

Getting some anecdotal perspective, the New York Times quotes a counselor connected to a church to offer some perspective on cohabitation and commitment. The counselor seems fairly nonchalant about cohabitation. Remember a few months ago when we looked at some census data on cohabitation? Religious people are most likely to be married and unlikely to cohabitate while nonreligious people are as likely to be single as to be married.

Joel Greiner, 31, director of counseling for the Journey, an interdenominational church in the St. Louis area, said about a third of the couples in his congregation who attend premarital classes live together before marriage, telling him they are “testing out the waters to see if it will work and wanting to save money.”

But Mr. Greiner says the talk of economics may be cloaking the primary issue. “It’s more a fear of intimacy and fear of marriage,” he said.

According to the federal data, the share of young adults who have never married climbed from 35 percent at the start of the decade to 46 percent in 2009.

Taking cues from the researchers’ spin, most reporters blamed the economy for why young people are not moving towards marriage. Surely there are more cultural reasons, generational differences and assumptions made besides dollars and cents? Does any data offer breakdowns based on religious practice?

The Wall Street Journal looked at how big cities factor into young people’s marriage decisions. Last year, the Journal published at least two pieces in 2009 on how it’s harder for couples to divorce during the recession. So is the consensus among sociologists that it’s harder to tie the knot but also harder to break the knot during the recession?

Besides, what do more religious leaders have to say about these numbers? Since many of them are doing the tying of the knots, surely they have something to say about these trends.

Bride image via Wikimedia Commons.

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  • Jerry

    Sarah, I’ve been wondering about this trend so thanks for picking it as a topic. In this Looking Glass world of ours, gays want to get married and straights don’t, at least from a media perspective. Maybe we need to make marriage illegal unless you’re gay and then sit back and wait for hordes demanding the right to get married? Sigh.

    This is one of those apparently world-wide trends. For example:

    And then, of course, there is the divorce rate and the question of religion and divorce. There is a Barna group survey on divorce and religion in 1999 and a more recent Pew one which found no correlation between religiousness and marriage/divorce:

    I guess this is one of those areas that brings out my inner Dylan and I start singing:

    Because something is happening here
    But you don’t know what it is
    Do you, Mister Jones?

  • Johnny

    I have to say, I’m not a big fan of the frame that’s introduced by the title about “Delaying” marriage, as if it is inevitable, which is both sociologically and theologically presumptive. There really isn’t anything here more than anecdotes that people are actually delaying, intentionally or unconsciously, something that they eventually plan to do.

    Also, you seem to question sociologists who claim that the economy makes it hard both to marry and to divorce in a recession. Change the language to “people are more resistant to make major life changes in an era of extreme economic uncertainty” and it becomes a much more coherent claim. A claim which journalists should include? Surely. But so should you.

  • Julia

    Fewer people divorce because they feel they can’t afford the cost of the legal process and living with one income afterwards. A spouse with a job is a good insurance policy – and that works for husbands and for wives. In fact, I’ve read that it’s more likely that wives have kept their jobs. I know several situations like that where there might otherwise be a divorce.

    There’s also the problem that many divorces involve the sale of the the home – the one shared property with some value.

    The wife can’t buy out the husband; the husband can’t buy out the wife; and the market is near non-existent.

    Many of these folks may be living as if divorced while sharing the home and finances till times get better financially.

  • dalea

    Some data on marriage rates, looking at annual rate per 1,000 for unmarried women:

    In 1970, 80 out of 1,000 married, in 2008 37 out of 1,000. This is a large drop that appears to be accelerating. By 2025 the rate will be 10.

    Internationally, the US has the highest marriage rate, 9.8 per 1,000. Sweden has the lowest, 4.7, and the average for the developed world is 6.5. Figures are here:

    The US is also number one in divorces, at 4.95 per 1,000. This is a big lead, the world average 1.3, our rate is twice that of Canada. Interesting factoid: Sri Lanka has the lowest divorce rate and the highest female suicide rate in the world. Wonder if those are related?

  • dalea

    Ooops, the divorce rate is at:

    Interestingly enough, the US has the lowest age at first marriage for women, 25, of any advanced economy. The Swedish rate is the highest, 30.4. Average is 28.1.

    US men have the lowest age at first marriage also, 26. The Swedes have the highest, 32.9. And the average is 30.3. All the countries with an age under 30 are English speaking or Belgium. For women, only two countries have a rate over 30, Sweden and Denmark.