Marriage: more stable, but less common

Marriage is dead? Not in America” read the optimistic headline of a recent op-ed column by two individuals who keep tabs on this vitally important social institution.

The authors of the piece, W. Bradford Wilcox and Alysse ElHage, cite several trends to show that, rather than being in decline, marriage is on a decadelong rebound.

For example, they cite statistics showing that the divorce rate has fallen significantly, that having children out of wedlock is also less common and that the share of children being raised in intact, married families is on the rise.

“All of that is good news for our children, good news that has been obscured in recent pop cultural and media depictions in America,” the authors write.

If only it were as simple as that.

Unfortunately, there are other numbers out there that tell a different story.

Yes, it is true that a couple getting married today is less likely to end up divorcing than they would have a couple of decades ago. The commonly cited statistic that 50% of marriages will eventually not survive is now more like 40%.

The main reasons, however, for this decline appear to be that fewer people are getting married, and those who do wait until they are financially secure before tying the knot.

The figures are a little dated, but in 2018, the average age for U.S. men entering their first marriage was 30 and 28 for women, compared to 27 and 25 just 15 years earlier, according to Time magazine. Meanwhile, cohabitation has become more common than marriage for those under that age. And in fact, since 2000, with marriages taking place later in life and less frequently among those with less education and less income, the marriage rate has fallen by 21%, nearly as much as the 28% drop in the divorce rate.

Marriage comes with obvious emotional benefits (such as, having someone to share your ups and downs), but it also brings a lot of practical ones, too. There are tax breaks for married couples, survivors’ benefits from Social Security, even documented health advantages, such as a lowered risk of a heart attack.

Unfortunately, those advantages are being increasingly enjoyed less by those who could stand to benefit the most from them: the poor, the working class and those just trying to get their feet under them in adulthood.

Marriage was once considered a stepping stone toward success. It’s now become more of an affirmation of it, and too many Americans are still never getting there.