Americans love marriage. The wedding industry is worth over 40 billion dollars, and TV shows and magazines continually cover stories of romantic proposals, show us how women chose their wedding dresses, and highlight when and where celebrities tied the knot. But, TIME recently confirmed a sociological story: marriage is changing.
In 1978, 28% of people surveyed thought that marriage was becoming obsolete. Today, a new study conducted by the Pew Research Center and TIME revealed that 40% of people think it’s obsolete.
Even more surprising: overwhelmingly, Americans still venerate marriage enough to want to try it. About 70% of us have been married at least once, according to the 2010 Census. The Pew poll found that although 44% of Americans under 30 believe marriage is heading for extinction, only 5% of those in that age group do not want to get married. Sociologists note that Americans have a rate of marriage — and of remarriage — among the highest in the Western world. (In between is a divorce rate higher than that of most countries in the European Union.) We spill copious amounts of ink and spend copious amounts of money being anxious about marriage, both collectively and individually. We view the state of our families as a symbol of the state of our nation, and we treat marriage as a personal project, something we work at and try to perfect. “Getting married is a way to show family and friends that you have a successful personal life,” says Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University and the author of The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today. “It’s like the ultimate merit badge.”
This badge of merit has changed over the past few decades. In 1960, 70% of American adults were married. Now, about half are. Also, wealthy, highly educated people are now more likely to get married/be married than those with lower levels of education and socioeconomic statuses.
The change is mostly a numbers game. Since more women than men have graduated from college for several decades, it’s more likely than it used to be that a male college graduate will meet, fall in love with, wed and share the salary of a woman with a degree. Women’s advances in education have roughly paralleled the growth of the knowledge economy, so the slice of the family bacon she brings home will be substantial.
These changes would suggest that the drive to finish college would explain why fewer people are married. But, in the last two decades, people with a high school education began to get married later than college graduates.
What has brought about the switch? It’s not any disparity in desire. According to the Pew survey, 46% of college graduates want to get married, and 44% of the less educated do. “Fifty years ago, if you were a high school dropout [or] if you were a college graduate or a doctor, marriage probably meant more or less the same thing,” says Conley [a sociologist at New York University]. “Now it’s very different depending where you are in society.” Getting married is an important part of college graduates’ plans for their future. For the less well educated, he says, it’s often the only plan.
Promising publicly to be someone’s partner for life used to be something people did to lay the foundation of their independent life. It was the demarcation of adulthood. Now it’s more of a finishing touch, the last brick in the edifice, sociologists believe. “Marriage is the capstone for both the college-educated and the less well educated,” says Johns Hopkins’ Cherlin. “The college-educated wait until they’re finished with their education and their careers are launched. The less educated wait until they feel comfortable financially.
And as they wait, they are increasingly likely to pass the time under the same roof.
Cohabitation is on the rise not just because of the economy. It’s so commonplace these days that less than half the country thinks living together is a bad idea. Couples who move in together before marrying don’t divorce any less often, say studies, although that might change as the practice becomes more widespread. In any case, academic analysis doesn’t seem to be as compelling to most people as the example set by Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. Or as splitting the rent.
“Marriage is still the way Americans tend to do long-term, stable partnerships,” says Cherlin. “We have the shortest cohabiting relationships of any wealthy country in the world. In some European countries, we see couples who live together for decades.” To this day, only 6% of American children have parents who live together without being married.
This story is further nuanced by differences in class and views about what is best for children. Check out the full article!