Part 3 of series. Click for Part 1 and for Part 2.
February 2007 – It barely caused a stir when The New York Times reported in mid-October that, for the first time in the history of this nation, the percentage of American households that are home to a married couple had slipped into the minority.
That discouraging fact was revealed by the American Community Survey, which was released by the U. S. Census Bureau. The numbers show that 49.7% of the more than 111 million U.S. households in 2005 contained a married couple, whether or not they had children.
As the Times reported, however, that percentage is down from the 52% of households with a married couple in 2000, part of a longer term trend in which fewer Americans appear intent on marrying.
In fact, most of the trends do seem to be heading in the wrong direction, according to information released by the National Marriage Project of Rutgers University (www.marriage.rutgers.edu).
The project is directed by David Popenoe, Rutgers University professor and author of Life Without Father and War Over the Family, and social critic Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, author of The Divorce Culture and the infamous 1993 Atlantic Monthly article, “Dan Quayle Was Right.”
For the past seven years, the project has issued an annual document titled “The State of Our Unions.” In that document the researchers include what they believe to be the most important indicators concerning marriage, divorce, cohabitation, child-centeredness and other issues that gauge the relative strength or weakness of the institutions of marriage and family. They identify three areas in which trends reflect the weakening of marriage.
When most people think of the decline of marriage as an institution, they probably think first about divorce, and for good reason: The U.S. divorce rate is currently almost double what it was in 1960.
On the other hand, figures from The National Marriage Project show that the divorce rate has actually been dropping since around 1980, when the rate per 1,000 married women was 22.6. It declined to 18.1 in 2003 and again to 17.7 in 2004.
Still, the danger of divorce remains prevalent. Popenoe and Whitehead said, “For the average couple marrying in recent years, the lifetime probability of divorce or separation remains between 40 and 50%.”
Despite that high risk of divorce, Popenoe and Whitehead said “the rate must be interpreted with caution and several important caveats,” including the fact that several factors can lower the risk of divorce.
For example, couples decrease their risk of divorce when they: wait at least seven months before having a child, as opposed to having a baby before marriage; get married after they turn 25 years old, as opposed to marrying before they turn 18; do not come from broken homes; or have a religious affiliation, as opposed to having none.
But has the divorce rate been dropping because people are beginning to treasure marriage more, and are fighting harder to preserve their marriages through tough times?
Probably not, as indicated by another trend: a dropping marriage rate. According to the National Marriage Project, in 1970 there were 76.5 marriages per 1,000 unmarried adult women, but the rate dropped to 39.9 in 2004 – a decline of nearly 50%.
It appears that fewer people are getting married in the first place – which would obviously mean there would be fewer recorded divorces when the relationship ended. “Marriage trends in recent decades indicate that Americans have become less likely to marry,” Popenoe and Whitehead said.
Why is this happening? The researchers said the decline is partially explained by the increase in the number of people who choose to cohabit as well as “a small decrease in the tendency of divorced persons to remarry.”
Also a factor, according to the project, is a clear trend toward waiting until later in life to get married. “[T]he median age at first marriage went from 20 for females and 23 for males in 1960 to about 26 and 27, respectively, in 2004,” said The State of Our Unions.
Again, part of the reason for the decline in the number of people who are getting married is cohabitation. “It is important to note that the decline in marriage does not mean that people are giving up on living together with a sexual partner,” said Popenoe and Whitehead. “On the contrary, with the incidence of unmarried cohabitation increasing rapidly, marriage is giving ground to unwed unions.”
When it comes to cohabitation, the researchers said, all the trends are in the wrong direction. “Most people now live together before they marry for the first time. An even higher percentage of those divorced who subsequently remarry live together first. And a growing number of persons, both young and old, are living together with no plans for marriage,” they said.
According to the National Marriage Project, between 1960 and 2004 the number of unmarried couples in the U.S. who cohabited in a sexual union increased by almost 1,200%.
“Over half of all first marriages are now preceded by living together, compared to virtually none 50 years ago,” said Popenoe and Whitehead.
William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, said it was the baby boomer generation, following World War II, that changed the way our culture looks at marriage.
“It’s the legacy of the boomers that have finally caused this tipping point [toward cohabitation]. Certainly later generations have followed in boomer footsteps, with high levels of living together before marriage, and more flexible lifestyles,” he said. “But the boomers were the trailblazers, once again, rebelling against a norm their parents epitomized. This would seem to close the book on the Ozzie and Harriet era that characterized much of the last century,”
Of course, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet was the famous ABC sitcom, which ran from the early 1950s until the mid-1960s, and which has come to signify the by-gone era when the wholesome nuclear family reigned supreme.
However, what is happening to the institution of marriage in our country isn’t a sitcom. It’s real life. And the consequences for future generations, well beyond the baby boomers, will be all too real as well.
University of Maryland sociologist Douglas Besharov, who also serves as resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, said the American family is in the middle of “seismic change.”
“You can’t have three-and-a-half decades of high divorce rates – as we have – and as many as five decades of rising out-of-wedlock births and not see change,” he said. “Change is in the air. The only question is whether it is catastrophic or just evolutionary.”