Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Death (and Life) of Marriage in America

by Derek Thompson

Atlantic

February 7, 2012

The story we think we know is that the institution of marriage is crumbling and on the brink of oblivion. The real story is much more complicated.


National Marriage Week USA kicks off today, and for many people, a national booster movement for marriage could not come any sooner. The recession did a number on American matrimony, as you've surely heard. The collapse in marriage rates is cited as one of the most important symptoms -- or is it a cause? -- of economic malaise for the middle class. But the statistics aren't always what they seem, and the reasons behind marriage's so-called decline aren't all negative.

At first blush, the institution of marriage is crumbling. In 1960, 72% of all adults over 18 were married. By 2010, the number fell to 51%. You can fault the increase in divorces that peaked in the 1970s. Or you could just blame the twentysomethings. The share of married adults 18-29 plunged from from 59% in 1960 to 20% in 2010. Twenty percent!


What on earth is going on with these kids? Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers tried to answer that question (among others) in their fantastic 2007 study "Marriage and Divorce: Changes and their Driving Forces."

The simplest summary of their findings is: It's really, really complicated. The full answer for the delay and decline of marriage would touch on birth control technology (which extends courtships by reducing the cost of waiting to get married), liberal divorce laws (which creates "churn" in the labor market by increasing divorces and new marriages), and even washing/drying machines (which both eliminate the need for men to marry lower-earning women to do housework and also free up women to work and study).

One important lesson from Stevenson and Wolfers is that, as much as it feels like things are changing very rapidly, a longer view on marriage trends reveals a more boring picture. If you pull back the lens, not to the 1960s but to the 1860s, the marriage rate and the divorce rate stick stubbornly to long-term trend lines.

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