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Jane Ahlin, Published December 17 2011

Ahlin: Trends in modern marriage harbingers of renaissance?

The analysis of marriage statistics released last week by the Pew Center doesn’t say much for the ongoing health of the institution. In fact, “marriage rates have hit a historic low.” As cited by senior editor-at-large Belinda Luscombe for Time magazine’s “Healthland” feature, the percentage of Americans who are married has dropped from “72 percent in the 1960s” to slightly over 50 percent today. More interesting is the noteworthy drop in rates in the most recent year of compiled statistics: “Between 2009 and 2010, the marriage rate declined by 5 percent” across all age groups, but most dramatically among the 18- to 24-year-old demographic, for whom the one-year drop was 13 percent.

Put another way, not only are significantly fewer Americans marrying, but those who do are waiting until they are older – much older. Since 1960, the median age for marriage “has risen by six years for both women and men.” By Census Bureaus surveys, “only 9 percent of adults ages 18-24 were married in 2010, compared with 45 percent in 1960.” Lest that give the impression that the only factor affecting marriage is age, note that 64 percent of adults with college educations are married but only 47-48 percent of those with some college or a high school education are. (“In 1960, the most educated and least educated adults were about equally likely to be married.”)

So what’s up? It isn’t an increase in the divorce rate, because that has remained constant for the past few decades. Nor do researchers tie the steep decline in marriage rates to the struggling economy, although that is a popular notion. For all the hypothesizing (and there is plenty), nobody really knows. Certainly, reliable contraception, which allows young people to put off parenting, has figured into the trend of marrying later. So have societal attitudes. Nobody “has to get married” anymore, nor is there a stigma attached to couples who live together but don’t marry. (What used to be scorned as “shacking up.”) Of course, the societal stigma associated with unwed motherhood and the pressure for men to own up to paternity by marrying also have changed. Responsible parenting no longer is seen only as a function of marriage.

And there are other factors. The tremendous debt young people acquire in pursuit of educations promising good (more to the point, good-paying) careers puts a damper on any idea of marrying young. Between paying off school loans and launching careers, fewer and fewer young people think marrying in their 20s is a responsible choice. Still, that doesn’t explain why white people are more likely than Hispanics and blacks to marry. Among whites, 55 percent are married; for Hispanics, the percentage is 48, and for blacks, it’s only 31 percent. One explanation is that Hispanics and blacks as demographic groups have adult populations younger than whites (age again). Then, too, as groups, they don’t attain the same educational level as whites. What isn’t clear is why the difference in educational level matters today, since it didn’t in 1960, or why ethnicity seems to compound the difference.

That said, there’s a contradicting fact to add to the jumble. Even as marriage rates have tumbled, Luscombe cites Pew research showing that the “majority of adults who have never been married say that they want to get married (61 percent).” Or, as she points out, the “institution [of marriage] is losing its status as an obligation, but not necessarily its desirability.”

Frankly, that’s fascinating. And hopeful. Marriage today may be viewed as optional rather than inevitable, and yet, something about the institution remains appealing. It’s possible that the decline of marriage rates today will be seen tomorrow as a period of change and revitalization for the institution: far from obsolete, marriage is in renaissance.

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum. Email janeahlin@yahoo.com.