Marriages fall out of fashion

In 1960, 72 percent of adults in the U.S. were married. Three years ago, 52 percent were married.
Why has such a central institution in our society declined so dramatically over what can be viewed as only a couple of generations? How has the modern family changed so much over time?
According to the findings of a report by the Pew Research Center, several factors are involved. One of them the economic factor.
“Poor people say they think marriage is important but don’t want to marry without feeling economically secure,” Washington University law professor Susan Appleton said. Appleton is an expert in family law.
About 50 years ago, the marriage rate for college graduates was 76 percent, while the rate for those with only a high school education was 72 percent, according to the Pew report. In 2008, the rate for those with a college diploma was 64 percent, compared to those with a high school diploma, which was 48 percent.
Appleton said this trend might be strongly connected with women’s decisions to marry or not to marry, more so than men’s.
“There are interesting studies about why poor women often have children but do not marry,” Appleton said. “These studies suggest that having a child is considered too important to postpone, but that marriage should await an opportunity to live up to the ideal. In other words, poor women want to marry someone who would not become a burden.”
With a high number of poor men either in prison or unemployed, some women just do not have the marriage prospects they seek, Appleton said.
“Marriage to some of the available partners would put these women at an economic disadvantage,” Appleton said. “Today, whether fathers are married or unmarried, the law requires child support, although enforcement often remains a problem.”
Additionally, the evolving role of women in the workforce has had a considerable impact on marriage and family life.
Today, about two times as many married women as in 1960 are working.
“Women are more economically self-sufficient today,” Appleton said. “That means they don’t need marriage for financial security.”
Also, the American public’s attitudes toward working wives have changed. In a survey from the Pew report, 62 percent of the participants said they approved of households in which both husband and wife work and take care of the children and household. In contrast, 48 percent approved of such families in 1977.
“I think changing values certainly play a role, but women’s stronger economic position (though not equal to that of men), the ability to disconnect sex from reproduction, and marriage itself also play a role,” Appleton said. “In other words, marriage has lots of patriarchal baggage that some people resist, while others probably take seriously the divorce rate. On the other hand, marriage still has great allure: Witness all the excitement about [the] ‘royal wedding’!”
The findings of the Pew report seem to agree that marriage, and especially family, is still valuable to many. It reported that three-fourths of all adults in the country say family is the most important part of their lives.
However, the question of what constitutes a family would most likely be met with different answers today compared to several decades ago. For example, while 63 percent today (Pew report) say a gay or lesbian couple raising a child is a family, that number would probably have been significantly lower even one or two decades ago.
The increasing importance of gay marriage topics has also shaped the way people view marriage as an institution.
“I think the rise of gay marriage, for many people, emphasizes the importance of marriage as the most valued of all officially recognized relationships,” Appleton said. “For others, though, debates about gay marriage simply emphasize how marriage is inherently exclusive – privileging those who marry and their families over those who don’t or can’t. So, for some, the conversation about gay marriage has prompted talk of ‘abolishing’ marriage as a state institution (as distinguished from a personal or religious institution).”
As views on marriage and family change, children are affected, as well. In 1960, 5 percent of all births were to unmarried women, while the percentage was 41 percent in 2008, according to the Pew report. Furthermore, race plays a large role. Black children are 34 percent more likely than white children to live with a single parent and 25 percent more likely than Hispanic children.
Also, the divorce rate has declined over the past two decades, contrary to common beliefs. However, it has increased since 1960.
Interestingly, in 2005-2006, both the marriage rate and divorce rate were higher in the U.S. than in any European Union country, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
As we consider the role of marriage in the U.S., Appleton said it is also important to think about how social pressure plays into the picture.
“I think respecting individual choice, whatever that might be, is key,” Appleton said. “I also think that we must take care to understand how society and law ‘push’ people toward marriage. There are many legal benefits triggered by marriage, and socially it’s an expected rite of passage. So, when we talk of respecting individual choice, we must also understand how law and culture shape such choices.”