Marriage: A New Minority

The New York Times reports that census data reveals a new minority: married people.

Married couples, whose numbers have been declining for decades as a proportion of American households, have finally slipped into a minority, according to an analysis of new census figures by The New York Times.

The American Community Survey, released this month by the Census Bureau, found that 49.7 percent, or 55.2 million, of the nation’s 111.1 million households in 2005 were made up of married couples — with and without children — just shy of a majority and down from more than 52 percent five years earlier.

What does this mean for the future of marriage?

The numbers by no means suggests marriage is dead or necessarily that a tipping point has been reached. The total number of married couples is higher than ever, and most Americans eventually marry. But marriage has been facing more competition. A growing number of adults are spending more of their lives single or living unmarried with partners, and the potential social and economic implications are profound.

If people aren’t getting married, what are their living situations?

The census survey estimated that 5.2 million couples, a little more than 5 percent of households, were unmarried opposite-sex partners. An additional 413,000 households were male couples, and 363,000 were female couples. In all, nearly one in 10 couples were unmarried. (One in 20 households consisted of people living alone).

And the numbers of unmarried couples are growing. Since 2000, those identifying themselves as unmarried opposite-sex couples rose by about 14 percent, male couples by 24 percent and female couples by 12 percent.

How long has this trend of decreasing marriages been going on?

With more competition from other ways of living, the proportion of married couples has been shrinking for decades. In 1930, they accounted for about 84 percent of households. By 1990 the proportion of married couples had declined to about 56 percent.

Married couples have not been a majority of households headed by adults younger than 25 since the 1970’s, but among those aged 25 to 34 the proportion slipped below 50 percent for the first time within the past five years. (Among Americans aged 35 to 64, married couples still make up a majority of all households.)

Why are less people getting married? Several theories were offered in the article:

  • Steve Watters, the director of young adults for Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian group, said that the trend of fewer married couples was more a reflection of delaying marriage than rejection of it. “It does show that a lot of people are experimenting with alternatives before they get there,” Mr. Watters said. “The biggest concern is that those who still aspire to marriage are going to find fewer models. They’re also finding they’ve gotten so good at being single it’s hard to be at one with another person.”
  • David Blankenhorn, president of the marriage advocacy group the Institute for American Values, said married couples had become a minority largely because of the growing number of households made up of people who planned to marry or who used to be married.
  • A number of couples interviewed agreed that cohabiting was akin to taking a test drive and, given the scarcity of affordable apartments and homes, also a matter of convenience. Some said that pregnancy was the only thing that would prompt them to make a legal commitment soon. Others said they never intended to marry. A few of those couples said they were inspired by solidarity with gay and lesbian couples who cannot legally marry in most states.
  • “It’s partially fueled by women in the work force; they don’t necessarily have to marry to be economically secure,” said Andrew A. Beveridge, a demographer at Queens College of the City University of New York, who conducted the census analysis for The New York Times. “You used to get married to have sex. Now one of the major reasons to get married is to have children, and the attractiveness of having children has declined for many people because of the cost.”
  • William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, attributed the accelerated trend to the lifestyles of baby boomers. “It’s the legacy of the boomers that have finally caused this tipping point,” Dr. Frey said. “Certainly later generations have followed in boomer footsteps, with high levels of living together before marriage, and more flexible lifestyles. But the boomers were the trailblazers, once again, rebelling against a norm their parents epitomized.

What’s my theory? I think the decline in marriage is based on the convergence of the following factors:

  1. Less incentive for anyone to marry early because of prolonged adolescence in which people are delaying marriage ‘until they are ready’
  2. Less incentive for men to marry because they are finding ‘sexual fulfillment’ outside of marriage
  3. Less incentive for women to marry because they have more means of caring for themselves financially
  4. Less incentive for anyone to marry because there is not as much social expectation or pressure to do so
  5. Less incentive for anyone to marry because they have watched their parents’ marriages fail and destroy their home life

As the years go by, Christian marriage is going to become increasingly countercultural. What God intended to be normative at creation has now become a minority in our civilization. What’s next?

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