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Why are people putting off ‘I do'?

It’s almost wedding season. That means mailboxes will be flooded with invitations to engagement parties, wedding showers, rehearsal dinners and nuptials themselves.

Or does it?

We asked Jay Zagorsky, an economist at The Ohio State University’s Center for Human Resource Research, to dissect the data on marriage trends in the United States and globally. What he found may surprise you — and give you something interesting to discuss with other wedding guests this summer.

News stories report marriage being on the decline, but are weddings really becoming a thing of the past?

Marriage ceremonies in the United States peaked in the 1980s, when almost 2.5 million marriages were recorded each year. But the total number of people getting married has steadily declined since then.

The drop in marriages is even more dramatic when the rapid growth in the U.S. population is taken into account. In fact, the marriage rate is the lowest in at least 150 years.

In fact, the marriage rate is the lowest in at least 150 years.

Record-low marriage rate

This graph charts the rise and fall of the U.S. marriage rate. The figure shows how many marriages per 1000 people.

chart showing the declining rate in marriage
Source: Author created based on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Vital Statistics System

 

 

With barely over half of U.S. adults saying they live with a spouse, it’s the lowest share on record and way down from 70 percent in 1967.

Checking your mailbox as summer approaches will likely tell you marriage isn’t quite obsolete. Society is still geared toward couples. But if the trends continue, more single folks might start to work against the laws that give certain benefits only to married couples. Only time will tell.

 

So is this a shift in U.S. social norms?

It’s not just an American thing. The United Nations found that nearly 80 percent of the 100 or so countries they looked at saw marriage rates fall from 1970 to 2005. The drop occurred in all types of countries, poor and rich.

And it clearly wasn’t based on geography, since one of the biggest declines occurred in Cuba (13.4 to 5), while one of the biggest increases occurred in the neighboring island of Jamaica (4.9 to 8.7).

Among countries that experienced a reduction, the average rate fell from 8.2 marriages per 1,000 to just 5.2, which is an even lower rate than what the United States is now experiencing.

Why has the drop occurred?

Some blame widening U.S. income and wealth inequality. Others point the finger at the fall in religious adherence or cite the increase in education and income of women, making women more choosy about whom to marry. Still others focus on rising student debt and rising housing costs, forcing people to put off marriage.

Finally, some believe marriage is simply an old, outdated tradition that is no longer necessary.

But given that this is a trend happening across the globe in a wide variety of countries with very different income, religious adherence, education and social factors, it’s hard to pin the blame on just a single culprit.

It seems counterintuitive, given the expansion of marriage rights legislation in the United States and elsewhere.

Governments across the globe continue to provide incentives and legal protections that encourage marriage.

For example, the U.S. federal government has more than 1,000 laws that make special adjustments based on marital status. Many of these adjustments allow married couples to get preferential tax treatment and more retirement benefits, and bypass inheritance laws.

Moreover, government legalization of same-sex marriages around the world has boosted the number of individuals able to enter into legally sanctioned unions. However, this increase has not been enough to reverse the declining trend.

Are couples just switching to cohabiting?

It is true that the percentage of people living with a partner instead of marrying has risen over time. In 1970 just half-of-one-percent of all adults were cohabiting in the United States. Today the figure is 7.5 percent.

However, this trend fails to explain the whole story of falling marriage rates.

Even when we combine the share of adults who are married with those who are cohabiting, the picture still reveals a strong downward trend.

In the late 1960s, over 70 percent of all U.S. adults were either married or cohabiting. The most recent data show less than 60 percent of adults are living together in either a marriage or cohabiting relationship.

The number of people living alone, without a spouse, partner, children or roommates, has almost doubled: The number of people living by themselves in the United States was less than 8 percent in the late 1960s. Today’s it’s almost 15 percent.

So why have marriage rates declined around the world, while the number of people living on their own has exploded?

In my mind, the simple answer is that for more people, the current costs of marriage outweigh the benefits.

The benefits of marriage are numerous and well known. Researchers have linked marriage to better outcomes for children, less crime, an increase in longevity and happier lives, among many factors. My own research revealed that marriage is associated with more wealth.

Nevertheless, marriage is hard work. Living with someone means taking into account another person’s feelings, moods, needs and desires instead of focusing just on your own. This extra work has large time, emotional and financial costs.

While decades ago many people believed the benefits of marriage outweighed these costs, the data around the world indicate more people are viewing the benefits of being married, or even cohabiting, as much smaller than the costs.