Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Marriage Is In Decline, Should We Be Worried?

The probability that young people will follow a traditional path and marry at an early age has been declining over recent decades.  This is a general phenomenon across much of the developed world.  Consider this data on marriage rates provided by the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development).

Clearly something significant is occurring.  There have been vast changes due to both social and economic evolution.  Whether these changes are viewed as positive or negative will depend on an individual’s points of view.  Changes in marriage (and divorce) rates can be both symptoms and causes of socioeconomic developments.  Evaluation of any trends must be performed within a very broad context.

An example of viewing marriage in isolation and leaping to unwarranted conclusions can be found in Carol Costello’s article for CNN: Ready for the marriage apocalypse?  She begins with this declaration:

“The marriage apocalypse may be coming. Talk to any millennial and you can envision an America virtually marriage-free, with everyone happily single.”

“I did. And I do.”

Costello relates a few conversations she has had with college students that suggest that marriage is not at the top of their list of priorities.  She seemed startled to learn that one young woman would rather spend $20,000 on a trip to Europe than on a wedding.  Costello then quotes results from a Pew Research Center report that polled people on their views on marriage.

“When asked if society is just as well off if people have priorities other than marriage and children, 50% of respondents were OK with that. And of that 50%, 66% were adults between 18 and 29.”

That quote plus the anecdotal comments she gathered indicate that the majority of young people seem more concerned with immediate issues than the long-term commitments of marriage and children.  It is not clear how that can be used to conclude that marriage is a dying institution.

Costello then turns to Scandinavia for data that might support her thesis.

“Scandinavians are just about there. According to USA Today: ‘In Norway ... 82% of couples have their first child out of wedlock. The numbers are similarly high for Sweden and Denmark. While many couples marry after having the first or second child, it's clear marriage in parts of Scandinavia is dying’."

She then includes this quote, presumably to convey the notion that the assumed death of marriage is somehow associated with Scandinavia’s high quality-of-life ranking.

“The article also points out that ‘Norway ranked first and Sweden second in the United Nations' quality-of-life survey for 2004, which rates per capita income, education levels, health care and life expectancy in measuring a nation's well-being. The USA came in eighth’."

Finally she asks this question of her readers:

“….back to that idea of a pending marriage apocalypse. Would it be so terrible if we all remained single?”

That would be a more interesting question if the data actually supported her contention that marriage is dying here, in Scandinavia, or anywhere.  Consider the chart provided at the head of this article.  The OECD data does indicate a downward trend in marriage rates for the selection of countries included, but note that Sweden (Suède) bottomed out in the late 1990s and its marriage rate has been trending upward ever since.  Note also that Sweden is the Scandinavian country most supportive of women’s equality.  If there were ever to be a place where women might decide that life would be more interesting without marriage and children, it would be Sweden.  However, it hasn’t happened there and doesn’t seem to be about to happen.

Costello discusses marriage as if the alternative is being single.  That is highly misleading.  Young men and women may be in less of a hurry to marry, but that does not necessarily mean that they are less interested in mating.  Consider this table provided by OECD on the marital status of adults in 17 different member countries.  That organization is smart enough to recognize that cohabitation is a significant factor and it must be tallied.  Some might feel uncomfortable including cohabitants in the same category as “married”, but it makes even less sense to include them as “singles.”

It would be difficult to look at this data and conclude that there are countries where marriage is dying out.  The “married” and “single” categories are unremarkable.  Differences arise in the degree to which cohabitation is an established mode of existence, and the Scandinavian countries have taken the lead in that category.

The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) supports the National Center for Health Statistics which studies the types of relationships young people are drifting into.  It provides this chart of initial unions entered by women in the United States:

The data covers the period 1995 to 2010.  The significant trend is for more people to cohabit before marriage—almost half in recent years.  These are significant relationships that can last for years.  Some dissolve and some transition to marriage.  Some marriages dissolve and lead to cohabitation as the next union.  Nevertheless, over the time interval studied the number of true “singles” has been essentially constant.

There are a number of reasons why avoiding formal marriage, initially or indefinitely, could be viewed as advantageous by young people.  Given current socioeconomic conditions it is likely that an even greater number will choose this path in the future.  However, conditions do change and this trend could reverse.  In fact, many things could happen and predicting the future is always risky.  It is particularly risky if you don’t start with a sound understanding of the basic data.

There is a wealth of interesting and troubling information contained in the various documents referenced here.  Major changes are occurring in our society due to social and economic developments.  There may be an apocalypse in our future, but it will have nothing to do with net marriage rates.

1 comment:

  1. True. Marriage is in decline due to this globalization and change in people's interests. Also focus on career over marriage is adding to the late marriages.

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