Record drop in US marriages caused by social changes

W Bradford Wilcox CNA US Catholic News 12 15 11 Dr. W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project

The fact that the number of Americans getting married is at a record low is due to changes in society’s values, public policy decisions and economic factors, says sociologist Dr. W. Bradford Wilcox.

He was responding to a Dec. 14 Pew Research analysis that indicates marriage rates in the U.S. are at a record low, as young couples are delaying marriage longer than ever before.

According to Pew Research Center’s analysis of U.S. Census data, only 51 percent of adults in the U.S. are currently married, compared to 72 percent in 1960. In addition, new marriages in America dropped by five percent between 2009 and 2010.

While the decline in marriage is taking place among all age groups, it is most drastic among young adults. The analysis observed that only 20 percent of adults between the ages of 18 and 29 are married, a drop from 59 percent in 1960.

Part of the decrease in currently married individuals may be tied to young adults delaying marriage, the report said. Both men and women are about six years older when they enter into their first marriage than couples 50 years ago were.

The analysis suggested that divorce is a factor in the decreasing percentage of adults who are currently married. However it noted that divorce rates have leveled off in the last 20 years after climbing in previous decades.

A similar decline in marriage has been observed in most other “advanced post-industrial societies” and in some less developed nations as well, said the report, noting the trend has continued in both good and bad economies. 

Wilcox attributed the decline in marriage to multiple social changes in recent decades.

Difficulties in finding stable work may lead couples to cohabit or delay marriage, he told CNA.

In addition, the culture has shifted, becoming more individualistic and accepting of alternatives to marriage, including premarital sex and cohabitation.

Wilcox also pointed to how marriage is no longer privileged in many public policies and is sometimes even financially penalized by law, creating an incentive for couples to remain unmarried.

Religion also makes a difference, he said, pointing to a 2010 report on marriage in America that the National Marriage Project coauthored. 

The report found that non-religious people are “much more likely to divorce than are the religiously committed” and that cohabitation is more common among non-religious people.

Americans have become increasingly disengaged with institutions, including churches, which have reported declining membership over recent decades, Wilcox observed.

The decrease in couples who marry could harm American society, he said.

Married couples are statistically happier and children do better when they are raised by married parents, exhibiting a lower likelihood of being depressed or using drugs.

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