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Marriage Rates Keep Falling, as Money Concerns Rise

Tuesday 30 September 2014

SEPT. 24, 2014

Of all the milestones on the road to adulthood, Americans are increasingly forgoing one of the biggest: marriage.

Twenty percent of adults older than 25, about 42 million people, have never married, up from 9 percent in 1960, according to data in a Pew Research Center report published Wednesday.

The trend has been consistent for decades. Since 1970, each group of young adults has been less likely to marry than the previous generation. Although part of the trend can be attributed to the fact that people are simply marrying older, Pew projects that a quarter of today’s young adults will have never married by 2030, which would be the highest share in modern history.

So as the left and right debate the relationship among marriage, parenthood and poverty, young people seem to be sending policy makers a message: that marriage is not necessarily part of the plan. That shift could reshape not just American families, but also policies like those around taxes, children and entitlements.

In many ways, the retreat from marriage is the result of evolving gender roles. But the decline in marriages is also a result of the country’s deepening socioeconomic divide. Until a few decades ago, marriage was mostly an economic equation, as the Nobel-winning economist Gary Becker described: Men earned money to support a family while women ran the household.

But with the rise of birth control, household technology and women in the work force, marriage became less about economics and more about love, as the historian Stephanie Coontz said in her book, “Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage.”

Educated, high-income people are still marrying at high rates and tending to stay married, according to economists and demographers who study the issue. Remaining unmarried is more common among the less educated, blacks and the young, Pew found.

Men are more likely than women to remain unmarried, 23 percent to 17 percent. Part of that is linked to the fact that the share of men aged 25 to 54 who are not working has been increasing for 50 years. At the same time, 78 percent of never-married women say that a mate with a steady job would be very important to them, more than any other quality in choosing a spouse. Pew analyzed the pool of employed, unmarried men, compared with all unmarried women. There are 65 employed men for every 100 women.

Blacks place more importance than whites on finding a partner with a steady job before marriage, according to Pew, and among unmarried young blacks, there are 51 employed men for every 100 women.

“The men who don’t have college degrees are doing so badly in the job market that they don’t seem like good prospects to the women in their lives,” said Isabel Sawhill, co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution, whose book on the topic, “Generation Unbound: Drifting Into Sex and Parenthood Without Marriage,” comes out Thursday.

Yet she said it‘s not entirely an economic phenomenon; it’s also one about shifting social roles. “I do think it has something to do with the fact that in the professional class, because men are doing very well, they aren’t threatened in any way by a wife that works or is doing very well herself,” she said. “Amongst working-class males, it may be a little more threatening if your wife or girlfriend is earning as much as you are and making new demands as a result.” And as modern marriages have become more about love than about survival, it has become an indulgence that is easier for well-off people to take advantage of, said Justin Wolfers, an economist who writes for the Upshot and has studied marriage and divorce. The benefits of sharing passions are more likely to accrue to people who have the time and money to invest in them, he said.

Though marriage was once a steppingstone to economic stability, young adults now see financial stability as a prerequisite for marriage. More than a quarter of those who say they want to marry someday say they haven’t yet because they are not financially prepared, according to Pew.

“If you go back a generation or two, couples would literally take the plunge together and build up their finances and nest eggs together,” said Kim Parker, director of social trends research at Pew. “Now it seems to be this attitude among young adults to build up households before they get married.”

In other words, marriage has gone from being a way that people pulled their lives together to something they agree to once they have already done that independently.

The Upshot provides news, analysis and graphics about politics, policy and everyday life. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

A version of this article appears in print on September 24, 2014, on page A21 of the New York edition with the headline: Financial Security Is Increasingly Trumping Marriage, Report Says.

See online: Marriage Rates Keep Falling, as Money Concerns Rise