Why Are Marriage Rates Hitting New Lows?

The latest census data show that the rate of marriage in America is still declining.  In fact, the marriage rate has hit an all-time low, and the number of Americans over 25 who have never been married has hit an all-time high.  In 1960, nine of ten Americans over 25 had been married; in 2012, half of that population segment had never been married.

Why is this so?  The article linked above discusses three possible reasons, two of which seem totally off-base and the third of which may be looking in the wrong direction.

The first is the economy and issues of “financial security,” which some young people cite as reasons to defer marriage.  There no doubt are people who want to be settled, in terms of their jobs and careers, before they get married, and the current economy is making that settling process more challenging.  However, the decline in marriage is a long-term trend, not a temporary blip that tracks economic performance.  Moreover, data shows that married couples, with their pooled resources and shared expenses, are far more likely to be wealthy than their unmarried or divorced counterparts.  No one should get married for purely economic reasons, of course, but if you are in love, getting married and staying married is far more likely to produce financial security than any other course.

The second is whether the increasing availability of same-sex marriage has caused rates of marriage to fall.  I think it is far more likely that the opposite is true.  As a mathematical matter, the fact that couples who previously could not marry are now part of the potential marriage pool is bound to increase marriage rates, and the zeal with which loving gay couples have pursued their right to marry assigns a value to the institution that should encourage more people to make that commitment, not the other way around.  It also seems implausible that those people who vigorously resist any change to “traditional concepts of marriage” are going to eschew getting married simply because gay people now have that right.

The final potential reason is the eradication of taboos on unmarried cohabitation and having out-of-wedlock children.  Those taboos, too, have been gone for a long time and therefore wouldn’t explain recent changes in marriage rates.  I think other, less noticeable long-term social forces provide an explanation.  It’s not the eradication of sex-related taboos that is at work, but rather increasing acceptance of the concept of being alone, both by the individuals in question and society as a whole.  Whether it is because they enjoy their private, internet-focused lives, or because they find their work far more rewarding than awkward social interaction, or because they don’t want the pressure of a permanent relationship, more people are perfectly comfortable with being single.  Decades ago, their families and friends would have put enormous pressure on them to get married; now those forces don’t exist.