The Low Percentage In Marriages Essay

November 18, 2010

The Decline of Marriage And Rise of New Families

I. Executive Summary

The transformative trends of the past 50 years that have led to a sharp decline in marriage and a rise of new family forms have been shaped by attitudes and behaviors that differ by class, age and race, according to a new Pew Research Center nationwide survey, done in association with TIME, complemented by an analysis of demographic and economic data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

A new “marriage gap” in the United States is increasingly aligned with a growing income gap. Marriage, while declining among all groups, remains the norm for adults with a college education and good income but is now markedly less prevalent among those on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder. The survey finds that those in this less-advantaged group are as likely as others to want to marry, but they place a higher premium on economic security as a condition for marriage. This is a bar that many may not meet.

The survey also finds striking differences by generation. In 1960, two-thirds (68%) of all twenty-somethings were married. In 2008, just 26% were. How many of today’s youth will eventually marry is an open question.  For now, the survey finds that the young are much more inclined than their elders to view cohabitation without marriage and other new family forms — such as same sex marriage and interracial marriage — in a positive light.

Even as marriage shrinks, family— in all its emerging varieties — remains resilient. The survey finds that Americans have an expansive definition of what constitutes a family. And the vast majority of adults consider their own family to be the most important, most satisfying element of their lives.

Here is a summary of the key findings of the report:

  • The Class-Based Decline in Marriage. About half (52%) of all adults in this country were married in 2008; back in 1960, seven-in-ten (72%) were. This decline has occurred along class lines. In 2008, there was a 16 percentage point gap in marriage rates between college graduates (64%) and those with a high school diploma or less (48%). In 1960, this gap had been just four percentage points (76% vs. 72%). The survey finds that those with a high school diploma or less are just as likely as those with a college degree to say they want to marry. But they place a higher premium than college graduates (38% versus 21%) on financial stability as a very important reason to marry.
  • Is Marriage Becoming Obsolete? Nearly four-in-ten survey respondents (39%) say that it is; in 1978 when Time magazine posed this question to registered voters, just 28% agreed. Those most likely to agree include those who are a part of the phenomenon (62% of cohabiting parents) as well as those most likely to be troubled by it (42% of self-described conservatives). Despite these growing uncertainties, Americans are more upbeat about the future of marriage and family (67% say they are optimistic) than about the future of the country’s educational system (50% optimistic), its economic system (46% optimistic) or its morals and ethics (41% optimistic).
  • An Ambivalent Public. The public’s response to changing marital norms and family forms reflects a mix of acceptance and unease. On the troubled side of the ledger: Seven-in-ten (69%) say the trend toward more single women having children is bad for society, and 61% say that a child needs both a mother and father to grow up happily. On the more accepting side, only a minority say the trends toward more cohabitation without marriage (43%), more unmarried couples raising children (43%), more gay couples raising children (43%) and more people of different races marrying (14%) are bad for society. Relatively few say any of these trends are good for society, but many say they make little difference.
  • Group Differences. Where people stand on the various changes in marriage and family life depends to some degree on who they are and how they live. The young are more accepting than the old of the emerging arrangements; the secular are more accepting than the religious; liberals are more accepting than conservatives; the unmarried are more accepting than the married; and, in most cases, blacks are more accepting than whites. The net result of all these group differences is a nearly even three-way split among the full public. A third (34%) say the growing variety of family arrangements is a good thing; 29% say it is a bad thing and 32% say it makes little or no difference.
  • The Resilience of Families. The decline of marriage has not knocked family life off its pedestal.  Three-quarters of all adults (76%) say their family is the most important element of their life; 75% say they are “very satisfied” with their family life, and more than eight-in-ten say the family they live in now is as close as (45%) or closer than (40%) the family in which they grew up. However, on all of these questions, married adults give more positive responses than do unmarried adults.
  • The Definition of Family. By emphatic margins, the public does not see marriage as the only path to family formation. Fully 86% say a single parent and child constitute a family; nearly as many (80%) say an unmarried couple living together with a child is a family; and 63% say a gay or lesbian couple raising a child is a family. The presence of children clearly matters in these definitions. If a cohabiting couple has no children, a majority of the public says they are not a family. Marriage matters, too. If a childless couple is married, 88% consider them to be a family.
  • The Ties that Bind. In response to a question about whom they would assist with money or caregiving in a time of need, Americans express a greater sense of obligation toward relatives—including relatives by way of fractured marriages– than toward best friends. The ranking of relatives aligns in a predictable hierarchy. More survey respondents express an obligation to help out a parent (83% would feel very obligated) or grown child (77%) than say the same about a stepparent (55%) or a step or half sibling (43%). But when asked about one’s best friend, just 39% say they would feel a similar sense of obligation.
  • Changing Spousal Roles. In the past 50 years, women have reached near parity with men as a share of the workforce and have begun to outpace men in educational attainment. About six-in-ten wives work today, nearly double the share in 1960. There’s an unresolved tension in the public’s response to these changes. More than six-in-ten (62%) survey respondents endorse the modern marriage in which the husband and wife both work and both take care of the household and children; this is up from 48% in 1977. Even so, the public hasn’t entirely discarded the traditional male breadwinner template for marriage. Some 67% of survey respondents say that in order to be ready for marriage, it’s very important for a man to be able to support his family financially; just 33% say the same about a woman.
  • The Rise of Cohabitation. As marriage has declined, cohabitation (or living together as unmarried partners) has become more widespread, nearly doubling since 1990, according to the Census Bureau. In the Pew Research survey, 44% of all adults (and more than half of all adults ages 30 to 49) say they have cohabited at some point in their lives. Among those who have done so, about two-thirds (64%) say they thought of this living arrangement as a step toward marriage.
  • The Impact on Children. The share of births to unmarried women has risen dramatically over the past half century, from 5% in 1960 to 41% in 2008. There are notable differences by race:  Among black women giving birth in 2008, 72% were unmarried.  This compares with 53% of Hispanic women giving birth and 29% of white women. Overall, the share of children raised by a single parent is not as high as the share born to an unwed mother, but it too has risen sharply — to 25% in 2008, up from 9% in 1960. The public believes children of single parents face more challenges than other children — 38% say “a lot more” challenges and another 40% say “a few more” challenges. Survey respondents see even more challenges for children of gay and lesbian couples (51% say they face a lot more challenges) and children of divorce (42% say they face a lot more challenges).
  • In Marriage, Love Trumps Money. Far more married adults say that love (93%), making a lifelong commitment (87%) and companionship (81%) are very important reasons to get married than say the same about having children (59%) or financial stability (31%). Unmarried adults order these items the same way. However, when asked if they agree that there is “only one true love” for every person, fewer than three-in-ten (28%) survey respondents say, I do.

Barely half of Americans over the age 18 are married, according to a new report from the Pew Research Institute. The number of couples married in 2010 dropped a startling 5 percent from the previous year, and the overall number of married couples has declined by more than 20 percentage points since 1960.

The report, released Wednesday, showed that Americans are not only getting married less frequently, they're doing so later in life. These findings mirror those observed in the UK in November, where researchers found that only 48 percent of adults there were married.

But what does this mean for society? And why does it matter at all? HuffPost Weddings spoke to Pew researcher and senior writer D'Vera Cohn to find out.

What are the major findings in this report?
We looked at three aspects of marriage and all of them had pretty notable numbers to them. We looked at how many adults are currently married -- among people over 18, how many of them have a spouse -- and we found that barely half of all adults now are married. That's declined quite a bit from the past. In 2010, again it was barely half -- 51 percent -- in 1960, it was 72 percent. The second thing we looked at was how many marriages are taking place from one year to the next. We have some recent data about that from the last few years from a census survey. So our second finding is that from 2009 to 2010, the number of marriages declined by five percent, which is a pretty notable decline. We don't know why, we can't really say for sure that it's the recession or bad economic times, but it's certainly one more sign that marriage is less important than it used to be in the lives of Americans. The third thing we looked at was how old are Americans when they get married for the first time. Among men who get married for the first time, half are nearly 29 years old or older, and among women who marry for the first time, half are about 27 years old or older. Back in the baby boom days it was early-20's, in the 1990's it was mid-20's, now we're talking late-20's, which means we're seeing a substantial number of people not get married until their 30s for the first time.

Why aren't people getting married?
There are a number of things going on that could play a role. One is that there are other kinds of living arrangements that are socially acceptable now that may not have been in the past, such as living with someone without being married, living on your own, or even living as a single parent. So people may feel they have options that they didn't used to have. Another factor in some cases is that among Americans who complete college, or education beyond that, they may want to get their education done and get launched in a career before they settle down and get married. From some surveys we've taken, we've had people say that it's important, at least for men, to be financially able to provide for a family before they get married. It may [also] be that some couples feel they don't have the financial wherewithal to have a wedding yet.

Why does it matter that people are getting married less or later in life?
Economically speaking, married couples tend to have more income and more wealth. Some of that might have to do with who chooses to get married, that is, people who are educated have less of a decline in their marriage rates than people who are less educated. We also know that the kind of partnership marriage encourages is one in which you plan for the future, share your assets, build wealth together. There isn't that evidence yet for people who live together. So it would be of concern if there's a growing gap between people who are married and people who aren't, in terms of the wealth and income that they have. Another thing to think about is that many of our organizations and institutions are built on the assumption that people are married, that doesn't mean that they can't change or shouldn't change, but it means there would be some adjustment. The third thing to think about is the living conditions and well being of children. There's research indicating that children have a higher likelihood of turning out well if they come from a household where their parents are married. Most children turn out well regardless of whether their parents are married or not, so I'm not at all trying to suggest that children will turn out badly if their parents aren't married. But there's a somewhat higher likelihood that they will face issues, and some of those may include economic hardship.

So that's why this matters. But who does it matter for?
It might matter for their children; it might matter for the institutions that they operate in, such as their employers and the nation's tax base. If, for example, people who aren't married are less able to build wealth, then that will affect the overall wealth of the country.

In your report, you note that about 40 percent of people overall said they believe marriage is obsolete, including 31 percent of married people -- that's surprising. Can you tell me more about that finding?
It kind of makes sense that people who are married would be less inclined to think marriage is obsolete than people who aren't. It also makes sense to me that people who are younger, who are growing up in an era where marriage is less common, would also be more likely to think that marriage is becoming obsolete. I'm also struck by the fact that a large percentage of people who say that marriage is obsolete still want to get married. I think they may be having two ideas in their head at once: one about the institution of marriage and what its status is in society today, which is to say that it's a lot less dominant, central or important in society, [and another about] their own wishes for their future, in which they personally would very much like to be married.

What are the larger social implications of this trend?
It hasn't happened here yet so we don't know. You might look to some countries in Europe, but their social institutions are different because there are many countries over there where there's a well-established tradition of cohabitation that has some legal recognition. The legal rights of people who live together might be, if not equivalent to marriage, at least close, so there would not be concerns about inheritance or health benefits. This trend that we observed in our report is something that has been happening in a number of developed countries. [In] some of those countries, the Scandinavian ones especially, many people just live together and the assumption is that that's just about an equivalent state to marriage. It'll be interesting to see whether, in this country, whether we move more to that or whether we continue to have a kind of two-tiered system where marriage has the most recognition and legal benefits, and cohabitation is somewhat lower.

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