Marriage Statistics: Are Americans Giving Up on Marriage?

A view of a hotel sign in Reno, Nevada, famous for speedy divorces. Circa 1940.(Photo by Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

A view of a hotel sign in Reno, Nevada, famous for speedy divorces. Circa 1940. (Photo by Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In the past few decades, Americans have become a bit cynical when it comes to marriage, and not without good reason. The country still boasts a high divorce rate (it’s hovering around 50%), and an Indiana University study suggests that as many as 23% of men and 19% of women have admitted to cheating on their spouses. Not exactly encouraging.

Yet studies have time and again concluded that married people live longer and feel more secure. Couples are also known to be healthier than single people, and married individuals are less likely to get, “pneumonia, have surgery, develop cancer, or have heart attacks.” Clearly there are still some profound benefits for trying to make marriage work, to the delight of all the hopeless romantics out there.

So what does marriage in the U.S. look like these days? A recent study from the Pew Research Center found a number of interesting trends in their most recent look at marriage in America. For one, the study found that after years of declining marriage rates, the percentage of Americans who have never been married has reached a historic high point.

The research indicates that about one in five adults in the U.S. (adult in this case meaning 25 years old or older), or about 42 million Americans, have never been married. Compare that to data from the 1960 Census when just one in ten adults 25 or older had never been married, or about 9% of all American adults; clearly, marriage isn’t the institution it once was.

Interestingly, a larger number of never-married adults than ever before seem to be content with their singledom. In 2010, research indicated that 61% of never-married adults would like to eventually marry someday, while in 2012, that percentage dropped to just 53%.

The Pew Research Center notes that economic hard times have been one factor among many which have influenced the number of married Americans. Consider, for instance, the statistic that the average cost of a wedding in the United States today is over $25,000, and financial security is considered the most pressing obstacle to marriage among young adults (those between the ages of 25-29). Currently, over a third of young Americans cited financial security as an obstacle, compared with just 20% of unmarried Americans over the age of 35.

Yet, despite the fact that fewer people are getting married, it seems Americans are spending more on their weddings than they have in the past, suggesting that maybe folks are holding out and getting married later in life, after they’ve accumulated more wealth. In 2013, for instance, couples spent an average of $30,000 on their weddings; further, the average amount spent on a wedding varies significantly by state, so if you’re hoping to get married in New Jersey you might want to think twice. The average cost of a wedding in the Garden State is the highest in the nation, coming in at a whopping $51,287, according to Parade Magazine.

The Pew Research Center notes that there a number of cultural reasons for the shift away from marriage, too. As a whole, American society doesn’t seem as sold on the idea of marriage as it once was, and in fact, much of the country is conflicted about the institution’s role in modern day life.

When Americans were surveyed about whether they thought a society is better off if its people make marriage and children a priority or whether they didn’t think it influenced society very much if people had different priorities, the country was pretty divided. Fifty percent responded that they felt society was just as well off if people chose not to make marriage and children a priority, while 46% responded that society would be better off. Young adults, in particular, were more likely to respond that having other priorities wasn’t detrimental to society.

Priorities for marriage have also shifted slightly since the ’60s. The Pew Research Center found that for women, finding a spouse who has a steady job is of the upmost importance, as 78% of women surveyed said that it was very important to them when choosing a partner. Men, on the other hand, cited similar perspectives on child-rearing as one of the most important factors when choosing a partner, more so even than finding a partner who has a steady job. And while preferring a partner with a steady job probably hasn’t changed much since 1960s, the number of available young men currently in the labor force has. The Pew Research Center reports that the number of employed men for every 100 women has dropped from 139 in 1960 to 91 in 2012, putting new importance on employment as a desirable trait.

People tend to be holding out for specific conditions or specific traits in their spouse before marriage as well. The Pew Research Center notes that today’s young adults are particularly slow to marry, and projections based on the most recent Census data indicate that when the current cohort of young people ages 25-34 reach their mid-40s and 50s, just 25% of them will be married.

The center also found a widening gender gap when it comes to who marries. Men have always been more likely to remain unmarried, but the percentage of American bachelors in the U.S. has grown since the ’60s. According to the 1960 Census, 10% of men had never been married, compared with 8% of women. Today, 23% of men have never been married, compared with just 17% of women.

While men in general are less likely than women to have never been married, the statistics change when you factor in a man’s education. The Pew Research Center found, for instance, that men with just a high-school education are less likely to marry then men who have advanced degrees. About 25% of high-school educated men have never been married, for instance, while just 14% of men with a higher education remain unmarried. For women, in contrast, level of education doesn’t seem to have much bearing on whether or not she will marry, though in the 1960s, the data suggests higher degrees may have actually worked against her.

It’s interesting to note that while divorce rates in the U.S. hit an impressive 40-year low in 2009, it may not have been for all the warm and fuzzy reasons we all might have liked. Bloomberg notes that the primary reason divorce rates took a nosedive during the recession was because most people could not afford them. Divorce necessitates more expenses than just legal fees, after all. Often the separated parties are looking for new housing or new jobs on top of adjusting out of a failed marriage. In this sense it’s logical that as the economy stabilizes, people who have long been unhappy are taking the opportunity to jump ship. The data supports this, as the number of Americans getting divorced rose for the third year in a row to about 2.4 million in 2012.

Remember those statistics we cited about marriage keeping you healthy? It turns out that researchers have since found there’s a caveat to the research: It’s true, but only in cases of a happily married couples. In the end, researchers found, it’s not so much about the institution as it is the relationship, and an unhappy relationship — surprise, surprise — doesn’t benefit anyone. Maybe, as it turns out, those slow-to-marry young Americans are onto something by holding out and waiting. Time will tell.

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