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Marriage? Who Needs It (Apparently Not You)

Why young people have untied the knot

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Three years into a relationship, writer Jen Kim wanted to get married. Her partner, who was working at a San Francisco startup, said he didn't want to “rush” anything—the conversation ended in tears.


Today, three years later, they still have yet to tie the knot, making them part of a sweeping trend: fewer people are getting married in the U.S. than ever before. Why that is—and perhaps, more importantly, why that’s okay—is something economists, sociologists and demographers are struggling to understand.

Marriage rates have been dropping as society’s standards for what constitutes acceptable behaviour evolves, says Bella DePaulo, a social scientist working at the University of California, Santa Barbara and author of How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century.

“Norms for how we live are expanding and evolving so people can choose what works best for them,” she says, citing the example of CoAbode, an online house-sharing platform for single mothers. “Women don't need to be tethered to a man for economic life support, they can have kids without being married, they can have sex outside of marriage. All these big important pieces of your life that used to be tied up in marriage just aren't glued to it anymore."

Created by Jay Zagorsky for The Conversation, using Center for Disease Control statistics

Clearly, America in 2016 demands a new framework. Research shows young people burdened with debt are less likely to get married, with young people getting married later and later. That same Pew study found a full one-quarter of young adults (between the ages of 25 to 34 in 2010) are projected to have never married by 2030, which “would be the highest number in modern history.”

With women increasingly earning the salaries and independence of professional success, insulated from traditional stigmas about singlehood, it seems intuitive their interest in getting married and taking care of a man could decline, says DePaulo.

As one charmer wrote on this Freakonomics post, “women that now have their Careers [sic] are very high maintenance, independent, selfish, spoiled, greedy, picky, and so very money hungry,” writes the anonymous WomenOverTheYearsHaveChanged. “This is a very Excellent Reason why many of us Good men Can't meet a Good woman anymore since they really have Changed for the Worse which many of us men are really Not to Blame at all. [all sic]

Misogyny aside, Kim says that commenter is on to something. “Women are so focused on having it all: Having a great career, making a lot of money, having love, and being beautiful, and raising kids, and that’s what has changed since the 1960s,” she says. “It makes me feel like I deserve more. If I’m going to be the best person, I want the best person.”

Could this decline in marriage also be attributed to couples who live together instead of getting married, like in Kim’s case? As in, why get married when you can have most of the benefits and none of the permanent commitment?

Jay Zagorsky, economist and research scientist at Ohio State University, says rising numbers of cohabitation don’t clear the air. After all, while more people are cohabitating, that increase doesn’t make up for the decline in marriages.

Today’s plummeting rates are unprecedented, he says, looking at rare historical data from CDC’s National Vital Statistics System for The Conversation. In 1868, 9 out of every 1,000 people got married; the number peaked at 16 in 1946 as returning soldiers found wives and settled down. In the early 1980s that number started its steady decline, hitting an all-time-low of 6.8 in 2013.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]It’s going to take generations of people opting out of marriage and society not falling apart to change that stigma that married people are somehow better than cohabitating people.[/quote]

“The number of people living alone, no children, no spouse, nothing, has been soaring over time since the 1960s, and that, to me, is a huge demographic trend,” says Zagorsky. In 1967, 7.6 percent of US adults lived alone, a number that nearly doubled to 14.4 in 2014.

One of the most interesting and beneficial effects of this shift is economic. “People living alone need more housing,” he says. “That has huge ramifications: for example, rugs, appliances, number of cars. You need twice as many dishwashers, twice as many stoves.” That, he says, is good for the GDP.

In All the Single Ladies, Kate Bolick found twice as many single women bought homes as single men in 2010. “And yet, what are our ideas about single people? Perverted misanthropes, crazy cat ladies, dating-obsessed shoe shoppers, etc.—all of them some form of terribly lonely,” she says. “We could stand to examine the ways in which we think about love; and the changing face of marriage is giving us a chance to do this.”

In 2013, Pew also found 16 percent of LGBT adults—primarily bisexuals with opposite sex partners—were currently married, compared to around half of all adults. Sixty percent of those were either married or said they would like to get married one day, compared to 76 percent of the general public.

One thing all these charts and statistics are bad at quantifying, says Kim, is love, heterosexual or otherwise. With same-sex couples finally (finally!) being given access to marriage—that same institution more and more heterosexuals seem to be avoiding—demographers are keeping a close eye on how, and if, the metrics change.

While some studies have shown that single people tend to be more depressed and live shorter lives, DiPaulo says those studies are bunk, designed to make singles feel as if they’re less-than. “People who stay single are often free to pursue their interests, their passions, to create a life that’s meaningful and important at the highest level,” she says.

In either case, according to Zagorksy, “it’s going to take generations of people opting out of marriage and society not falling apart to change that stigma that married people are somehow better than cohabitating people.” DePaulo agrees, with a laugh. “I’m waiting for that.”

For those thinking of taking the plunge, author Alain de Botton has some cautionary advice.

“No one can be in an optimal frame of mind to choose a partner when remaining single feels unbearable,” he writes. “We have to be wholly at peace with the prospect of many years of solitude in order to be appropriately picky; otherwise, we risk loving no longer being single rather more than we love the partner who spared us that fate.”

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