Is Marriage Becoming Obsolete?

June kicks off the wedding season in the U.S.!  No matter whether you love or hate them, an astounding trend is happening.  There are fewer weddings every year.

The number of U.S. marriage ceremonies peaked in the early 1980s.  Back then there were almost 2.5 million marriages recorded each year.  Since the early 1980s, however, the total number of people getting married each year has steadily fallen.  Now, in the mid-2010s, only about 2 million marriages happen a year.  This is a drop of almost half-a-million marriages a year since the early 1980s peak.  To provide a frame of reference the reduction in weddings means more people are now injured in U.S. car crashes than getting married each year.

Marriage Rates Are Dropping Too

The drop in marriages is even more dramatic when the rapid growth in the U.S.’s population is taken into account.  The figure below shows the number of marriages per 1,000 people for the last century and a half.  It does not matter if it is a person’s first, second or even third marriage.  The rate simply tracks the number of weddings that occurred adjusted by the population.

In the late 1800s, about nine people out of every 1,000 people got married each year.  Marriages plummeted during the Great Depression when few people were able to afford to start new families.  Marriage rates shot up at the end of both World Wars, when servicemen returned home.  The marriage rate then steadily fell from the early 1980s until about 2009.  Since then, it has leveled off at a rate of less than seven per every 1,000 people getting married each year.

U.S. Marriage Rate per 1,000 People Since 1867

U.S. Marriage Rate per 1,000 People Since 1867

Why the fall?

The drop in marriages is not occurring because of adverse legal or public policy changes.  Governments around the world continue to provide incentives and legal protections that encourage marriage.  The U.S. Federal Government has over 1,000 laws that make special adjustments based on marital status.  For example, married couples often get preferential tax treatment, more retirement benefits and bypass inheritance laws.

Moreover, government legalization of same-sex marriages around the world has boosted the number of individuals able to enter into legally sanctioned unions.  While legalizing same-sex marriages has boosted the number of marriages, this increase has not been enough to reverse the declining trend.

Why has the drop occurred?  The range of ideas is quite large.  Some blame widening U.S. income and wealth inequality.  Others blame the fall in religious adherence.  Others cite the increase in education and income of women, making women choosier about whom to marry.  Others focus on rising student debt and rising housing costs, forcing people to put off marriage.  Finally some believe marriage is simply an old, outdated tradition that is no longer necessary.

Many of these reasons don’t stand up to the bigger fact that the declining trend in marriage is occurring around the world.  The United Nations’ gathered data for about one-hundred countries showing how marriage rates changed from 1970 to 2005.  In 80% of the countries marriage rates fell.

Falling marriage rates occurred in all types of countries, from poor to rich.  Among countries seeing a reduction the average marriage rate was 8.2 marriages per 1,000 in 1970.  Thirty-five years later, in 2005, the average marriage rate was just 5.2 marriages per 1,000, a drop of three marriages per year.  Many of these countries have very different income, religious adherence, education and social factors than found in the U.S, suggesting the focus on U.S. specific problems is misplaced.

Is it a switch to cohabiting?

One popular explanation is that people are not marrying anymore because they are now living together.  It is true that the percentage of people living with a partner instead of marrying has risen over time in the U.S.  However, the story of falling marriage rates is not simply that people are switching from formal marriage arrangements to living informally with a partner.

When the percentages of adults who are married or cohabiting are combined, the picture also reveals a strong downward trend.  In the late 1960s over 70% of all US adults were either married or cohabiting.  The most recent data show less than 60% of adults are living together in either a marriage or cohabiting relationship.

Percent of U.S. Adults Married or Living With a Partner

Percent of U.S. Adults Married or Living With a Partner

This means over time, a smaller percentage of people are living as a couple.  The number of people living alone, without a spouse, partner, children or roommates has almost doubled.  The number of people living by themselves in the U.S. was less than 8% in the late 1960s.  It has risen to almost 15% today.

Percent of People in the U.S. Living Alone.

Percent of People in the U.S. Living Alone.

Why have marriage and marriage rates declined around the world and the number of people living on their own exploded?  In my mind the answer is quite simple: marriage or even cohabiting has both costs and benefits.

The benefits of marriage are numerous.  Researchers have linked marriage to better outcomes for children, less crime, an increase in longevity and happier lives among many factors.  My own research points out that marriage is associated with more wealth.

Nevertheless, these benefits don’t come for free.  Marriage is hard work.  Living with someone means taking into account another person’s feelings, moods, needs and desires instead of focusing just on your own.  This extra work has a large time, emotional and financial cost.  While decades ago many people believed the benefits of marriage outweighed these costs, the data around the world are clearly showing that more people are viewing the benefits of being married or even cohabiting, as much smaller than the costs.

Why Do We Care?

The summer wedding season is about to begin and I have already been invited to a few, so it is clear marriage will not actually become obsolete.

However, if the trends continue then the growing number of single people will soon begin to exert political pressure to eliminate the discriminatory laws that favor marriage.  Society today is geared toward couples.  We might soon see a monumental shift of society providing legal and monetary preferences that favor singles, instead of couples.

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A modified version of this post appeared in Salon and The Conversation.

One thought on “Is Marriage Becoming Obsolete?

  1. I was hurt and heart broken when a very big problem occurred in my marriage seven months ago, between me and my husband . so terrible that he took the case to court for a divorce. he said that he never wanted to stay with me again,and that he didn’t love me anymore. So he packed out of the house and made me and my children passed through severe pain. I tried all my possible means to get him back,after much begging,but all to no avail.and he confirmed it that he has made his decision,and he never wanted to see me again. So on one evening,as i was coming back from work,i met an old friend of mine who asked of my husband .So i explained every thing to him,so he told me that the only way i can get my husband back,is to visit a spell caster,because it has really worked for him too. So i never believed in spell,but i had no other choice,than to follow his advice. Then he gave me the Email address of the spell caster whom he visited. So the next morning,i sent a mail to the address he gave to me,and the spell caster assured me that i will get my husband back the next day. What an amazing statement!! I never believed,so he spoke with me, and told me everything that i need to do. Then the next morning, So surprisingly, my husband who didn’t call me for the past 7 months, gave me a call to inform me that he was coming back. So Amazing!! So that was how he came back that same day,with lots of love and joy,and he apologized for his mistake,and for the pain he caused me and my children. Then from that day,our relationship was now stronger than how it were before,by the help of a spell caster. So, i will advice you out there if you have any problem contact Him, i give you 100% guarantee that he will help you.. Email him at: (dr_mack@ yahoo. c o m) ,…………,

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