Now a new study released by the Pew Research Center finds 39 percent of Americans claim marriage is becoming “obsolete” — up from 28 percent in 1978. Pew finds this attitude is highest among 18-29 year olds (44 percent). Education seems to affect the decision to get married, with college grads favoring marriage (64 percent) over those with no college degree (48 percent). And the decision to marry splits somewhat along racial lines, with whites choosing to marry more often (56 percent) than African Americans (32 percent). 

There are many possible reasons for this decline in respect for and participation in marriage, from women’s economic freedom to government disincentives to the rise in cohabitation. In fact, Pew points out that cohabitation has “nearly doubled” since 1990, with 44 percent of adults having cohabitated today. 

But Justin Wolfers, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, points out that in economics, “you don’t just look at the cost” — you also have to consider the benefits of a cultural norm like marriage.  

And those benefits have to be considered not just at the individual level, but at the societal level as well. The institution of marriage plays a vital, stabilizing role in society, and the change in attitude toward marriage that Pew identifies is apt to have serious implications. 

The elimination of marriage does not get rid of the function marriage serves: providing stability for child rearing, uninterrupted companionship and support, and a financial safety net. 

When marriage becomes obsolete, the most important question is who — or what — will step in to fill its place?