As a family demographer, I’m used to the public reading my research and cheering for the good trends: lower mortality is a good one, as is or more education.
People also tend to cheer for more marriage and for less divorce. As the material gap between married and non-married people has visibly widened, along with inequality generally, it’s reasonable to pull for marriage.
So my latest research, which shows a marked decline in U.S. divorce rates in the last decade, especially among young people, looks like good news. If today’s young adults start off with low divorce rates — unlike their parents — then they will almost certainly be less likely to divorce in their own later years.
Based on demographic factors alone then, I conclude we are headed for declining divorce rates for years to come. As a counterintuitive good news story about millennials, it got a lot of clicks.
Falling divorce rates are good for people who are in happy marriages and people who plan to be or aspire to be in happy marriages. But a closer look reveals that the decline in divorce is coming as marriage is becoming rarer and more rarified. So in a society where fewer people get married and then fewer of them get divorced, what do we cheer for?
The baby boomers, born between 1945 and 1964, mostly married (for the first time) in the 1970s. They didn’t literally write the rules that made divorce easier to obtain, but they made no-fault divorce socially acceptable. Divorce peaked in the early 1980s.
In fact, the baby boomers brought the habit of divorce with them right into middle age, and then, as they aged into their 60s, they invented “gray divorce.” Never before have so many people divorced so late in life (often for the second time).
That may never happen again. The generations coming after the baby boomers have shown markedly less tendency to divorce. In the last decade, the overall divorce rate fell 18 percent, I found, and all of that decline was attributable to people younger than 45.
What happened? Marriage become more selective, with more college graduates marrying (and usually marrying each other). Further, the age at which people marry for the first time is rising, which is an important protective factor against divorce.
That’s probably why, even as divorce became more permissible than ever — with more than 75 percent telling Gallup that divorce is “morally acceptable” — it’s still growing less common.
In average terms, married couples and their children have real advantages, including higher incomes, more economic security and more stability, especially for their children, than people who aren’t married.
In an era characterized by the GoFundMe medical drive, the gig-driven job market and the student debt crisis, marriage provides a much-needed source of security and stability.
And it’s not just economic. In a culture that prizes marriage, there is a strong social advantage as well. Stably married people are perceived as socially competent; they are doing it right.
These dynamics feed off each other: People see married people doing well and that contributes to the esteem in which we hold the institution. Falling divorce rates may further contribute to this halo.
I am ambivalent about these trends. Divorce is often painful and difficult, and most people want to avoid it. The vast majority of Americans aspire to a lifelong marriage (or equivalent relationship). So even if it’s a falling slice of the population, I’m not complaining that they’re happy.
Still, in an increasingly unequal society and a winner-take-all economy, two-degree couples with lasting marriages may be a buffer for the select few, but they aren’t a solution to our wider problems.
Why do we say it’s bad to bring a knife to a gunfight? Because a gunfight is a winner-take-all affair, and the first moment of the fight may be the last. So, “bring the gun” is solid advice, even if gunfights aren’t something we want to encourage.
Marriage is turning out to be a little like the gun — it’s good if you can get it, and you definitely want your loved ones to bring it, but we’d all be better off if it wasn’t necessary.
If we could work out how to provide for people’s needs, especially children’s, without marriage, that would clearly be a boon to the people without marriage. Government can’t provide love and emotional caring, of course. But reducing the insecurity associated with housing, education and health care would be top priorities.
It would ironically be a powerful endorsement of marriage, by making it less necessary and more freely chosen. We might end up with fewer, better marriages and even lower divorce rates.
Philip N. Cohen is a sociology professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, and the author of the 2018 book, "Enduring Bonds: Inequality, Marriage, Parenting, and Everything Else That Makes Families Great and Terrible." Find him at @familyunequal.