Barely half of U.S. adults are married – A record lowon April 9th, 2012 at 8:00 am
New marriages down 5% from 2009 to 2010
Dy D’Vera Cohn, Jeffrey Passel, Wendy Wang and Gretchen Livingston — Pew Social and Demographic Trends
Barely half of all adults in the United States—a record low—are currently married, and the median age at first marriage has never been higher for brides (26.5 years) and grooms (28.7), according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census data.
In 1960, 72% of all adults ages 18 and older were married; today just 51% are. If current trends continue, the share of adults who are currently married will drop to below half within a few years. Other adult living arrangements—including cohabitation, single-person households and single parenthood—have all grown more prevalent in recent decades.
The Pew Research analysis also finds that the number of new marriages in the U.S. declined by 5% between 2009 and 2010, a sharp one-year drop that may or may not be related to the sour economy.
The United States is by no means the only nation where marriage has been losing “market share” for the past half century. The same trend has taken hold in most other advanced post-industrial societies, and these long-term declines appear to be largely unrelated to the business cycle. The declines have persisted through good economic times and bad.
In the United States, the declines have occurred among all age groups, but are most dramatic among young adults. Today, just 20% of adults ages 18 to 29 are married, compared with 59% in 1960. Over the course of the past 50 years, the median age at first marriage has risen by about six years for both men and women.
It is not yet known whether today’s young adults are abandoning marriage or merely delaying it. Even at a time when barely half of the adult population is married, a much higher share— 72%—have been married at least once. However, this “ever married” share is down from 85% in 1960.
Public attitudes about the institution of marriage are mixed. Nearly four-in-ten Americans say marriage is becoming obsolete, according to a Pew Research survey in 2010.1 Yet the same survey found that most people who have never married (61%) would like to do so someday.
It is beyond the scope of this analysis to explain why marriage has declined, except to note that it has declined far less for adults with college educations than among the less educated. Some of the increase in the median age at first marriage over the long term can be explained by the rising share of young adults enrolled in college, who have tended to marry later in life; recently, there are indications that adults who are not college graduates also are marrying later.2 Fallout from the Great Recession may be a factor in the recent decrease in newlyweds, although the linkage between marriage rates and economic hard times is not entirely clear.3
Divorce is a factor in diminishing the share of adults who are currently married compared with 50 years ago. But divorce rates have leveled off in the past two decades after climbing through the 1960s and 1970s, so divorce plays less of a role than it used to.4
What is clear is that a similar delay and decline of marriage is occurring in other developed nations, especially those in Europe, and in some cases in less developed nations. According to a recent United Nations report that analyzed marriage trends in the context of their impact on fertility,5 female age at first marriage rose from the 1970s to the 2000s in 75 of 77 countries included in its analysis. The increase was most marked in developed nations—and especially notable in those countries because the age at first marriage had been declining until the 1970s.
On another measure, the share of women ever married by ages 45–49, there were declines in all developed nations between the 1990s and the 2000s. According to the U.N. report, this was “due in part to an increasing acceptance of consensual [cohabiting] unions as a replacement for marital unions.”
“Currently married” includes married adults ages 18 and older with spouse present or absent but not separated.
“Median age at first marriage” is a Census Bureau approximation derived indirectly from tabulations of marital status and age. See http://www.census.gov/population/www/cps/cpsdef.html (Marriage, Age at first.)
“Newly married” or “newlywed” is based on a question in the American Community Survey (ACS) asking respondents whether they got married in the past 12 months. The ACS is administered throughout the year, so the marriages could have taken place during the survey year or during the previous calendar year. In the 2010 ACS, for example, respondents could have been newly married as far back as January 2009 or as late as December 2010.
“New marriage rate” is computed using as the numerator the number of adults ages 18 and older who answered yes to the American Community Survey question asking whether they had married within the past 12 months. The denominator is the number of adults ages 18 and older who have never married, who are divorced or widowed, or who married within the past year.
Race/Ethnicity: References to whites, blacks and Asians are to the non-Hispanic components of those populations. Hispanics can be of any race. Asians also include Pacific Islanders.
About the Report
The demographic data in this report come from two Census Bureau surveys and the decennial censuses of 1960–2000. The Census Bureau’s analysis of Current Population Survey data is the basis for reporting trends in median age at first marriage. The American Community Surveys (ACS) of 2008, 2009 and 2010 are used to analyze the marital status of adults in those years and to analyze trends in new marriages. The decennial censuses of 1960–2000 are used to analyze the marital status of adults in those years.
All data from the American Community Surveys and decennial censuses are from tabulations done by the Pew Research Center using microdata files obtained from the Integrated Public-Use Microdata Series (IPUMS) database6. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2010.] (http://www.ipums.org/). The censuses of 1980, 1990 and 2000 are 5% samples of the U.S. population. All other files are 1% samples of the U.S. population.
This report was written by D’Vera Cohn, senior writer, and by Wendy Wang, research associate, who also produced the charts. It was researched by Wang; Jeffrey S. Passel, senior demographer; and Gretchen Livingston, senior researcher. The report and charts were number-checked by Eileen Patten, research assistant, and copy-edited by Molly Rohal, communications coordinator. Paul Taylor, executive vice president of the Pew Research Center and director of the Social & Demographic Trends project, as well as Kim Parker, associate director of the Social & Demographic Trends project, provided editorial guidance.