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.
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.
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.
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.