The end of marriage in America?

While it may not have ended, marriage in America has unquestionably declined over the recent past and is now at historic low levels for the country.

Throughout the 20th century, the annual U.S. marriage rate was generally no less than eight marriages per 1,000 people. The marriage rate also varied considerably over the years of the past century. It declined to around eight marriages per 1,000 population at the time of the Great Depression and peaked at more than 16 marriages per 1,000 at the close of World War II. 

Since the start of the 21st century, the U.S. marriage rate has declined from more than eight marriages per 1,000 down to six marriages per 1,000 population in 2019. That marriage rate is the lowest level since the U.S. government began keeping marriage records for the country in 1867.

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Also, 70 years ago a large majority of U.S. households, approximately 80 percent, were made up of married couples. In 2020, the proportion of households consisting of married couples fell to 49 percent.

Some of the major factors behind the long-term decline in the marriage rate have been female education and labor force participation, women’s economic independence and gender equality. America is also experiencing growing numbers of women and men living alone as well as increasing unmarried cohabitation. In addition to the 15 percent of U.S. adults living alone, no less than one-quarter of those aged 25 to 34 years are living with an unmarried partner. 

American attitudes about childbearing and marriage have also changed markedly. For example, whereas in 2006 about half of U.S. adults said it was very important for couples having children together to legally marry, by 2020 that proportion had fallen to 29 percent. Today, the proportion of U.S. births to unmarried mothers is about 40 percent, double the percentage in 1980. 

Other factors that have contributed to lower marriage rates are declining religious adherence to marriage, public disenchantment with marriage, and more recently, unstable jobs and strained finances, particularly among low-income earners and those with only a high school education. 

Delaying marriage has also played a role in lower marriage rates. The median ages at first marriage are now 30 years for men and 28 years for women, about eight years higher than the ages in the 1950s. Also, the share of U.S. adults aged 18 to 34 years who were married fell from approximately 60 percent in 1978 to about 30 percent in 2018.  

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In addition to delaying marriage, record proportions of young U.S. adults are expected to never marry. For example, the proportion never married among Americans aged 25 to 50 years quadrupled from 9 percent in 1970 to a high of 35 percent in 2018. 

Some suspect that the COVID-19 pandemic may have driven the U.S. marriage rate below the historic low level of 2019. The pandemic’s resulting economic insecurity limited socializing, home confinements and anxieties about the future are believed to have contributed to fewer marriages. 

In Florida, for example, marriage numbers from March to September were 33 percent lower than expected based on trends of previous years. The tentative shortfall of U.S. marriages for 2020 is estimated at approximately 340,000.

Although marriage rates vary among major social groups in the U.S., those rates by and large have decreased over the recent past. Black Americans are substantially more likely to be single than whites and Hispanic Americans, 47 percent versus 28 percent and 27 percent, respectively. Since 1990, the marriage rates for white, Black and Hispanic Americans have declined by approximately 5, 8 and 9 percentage points, respectively; the rates for Asian Americans have remained largely unchanged.

Also in the U.S., men continue to be more likely than women to have never been married. For example, whereas in 1990, the proportions never married were 30 percent for men and 23 percent for women, by 2019 the proportions had increased to 35 percent for men and 30 percent for women.  

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Marriage rates across America generally tend to be the highest in the Western states and lowest in the Eastern states. In 2019, for example, Wyoming, Colorado, Washington and Utah had the highest rates of no less than 21 marriages per 1,000 women aged 15 years and over. At the other extreme, Delaware, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Vermont had the lowest rates of no more than 12 marriages per 1,000 women aged 15 years and over.

The decline in marriage rates is not unique to America but has also occurred in OECD countries. Whereas in 1970 most OECD countries had rates between seven to 10 marriages per 1,000 population, near the close of the century the rates declined to around five to seven marriages per 1,000 and in many countries, the rates continued to decline. For example, in Portugal, the Netherlands and Japan, the number of marriages per 1,000 population fell from about 10 in 1970 to six in 1995 and then declined further to three, four and five, respectively, in 2017.

In addition, the trends of delayed marriage, increasing cohabitation and remaining single have taken place across the major regions of the world during the past several decades. For example, worldwide the proportion never married among women reaching their late 40s increased from 1 percent in 1990 to 4 percent by 2010. An even larger increase in never-married women in their late 40s occurred in Australia and New Zealand, from 4 percent in 1990 to 14 percent by 2010.

America’s marriage rate has unquestionably declined over the recent past and reached a historic low in 2019. Irrespective of one’s view regarding the significance of this decline in marriage rates, the institution of marriage in America appears to have become increasingly inconsequential for growing numbers of young men and women, including couples having children together. 

Joseph Chamie is a consulting demographer, a former director of the United Nations Population Division and author of numerous publications on population issues, including his recent book, "Births, Deaths, Migrations and Other Important Population Matters."