Alarms Ring as Wedding Bells Do Not

January 25, 2014 — Leave a comment

Americans are waiting longer to marry, and household size declined between 2000 and 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Marriage is also declining among young people, the Bureau reports. The media have been quick to point to the 2008 recession as the key cause.

“The United States crossed an important marital threshold in 2009, with the number of young adults who have never married surpassing, for the first time in more than a century, the number who were married,” Erik Eckholm of The New York Times reported. “A long-term decline in marriage accelerated during the severe recession, according to new data from the Census Bureau, with more couples postponing marriage and often choosing to cohabit without tying the knot,” he concluded.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Center for Health Statistics has reported a 2.7% drop in fertility from 2008 to 2009, leading Marilynn Marchione of the Associated Press to comment, “The U.S. birth rate has dropped for the second year in a row, and experts think the wrenching recession led many people to put off having children. The 2009 birth rate also set a record: lowest in a century.”

But, while the fertility drop is recent, it’s actually linked to a longer-term trend. The Pew Research Center reports that the number of American women who had ended their childbearing years without giving birth has doubled since 1970s, from 1 in 10 to 1 in 5. Childlessness rose among women without a high school diploma, which could be attributable to a bad economy. Another plausible explanation is the success of public information campaigns urging people to delay childbirth until after high school.

Meanwhile, rates of childlessness declined by 32% for women with doctorate or professional degrees. But this group is still the least likely to have a child, according to Pew.

A few researchers have cautioned that, while the economy may have played a role in some people waiting longer to wed or bear children, it is still too early to extrapolate a clear causal link between the bad economic environment of 2008 and 2009 and the recent marriage and childbearing statistics. Census Director Robert Groves, writing on his blog, noted, “Many factors can affect the estimates of the number and proportion of people currently married. For example, declining numbers could reflect the passing of members of an older generation that had higher marriage rates.”

Pew recently reported that young adults (under 30) with a college degree had become more likely to marry than their peers without a degree, representing a reversal in favor of marriage among that group. Despite this, the overall marriage rate was still down among both degreed and nondegreed young adults.

Pew points to what researchers call a clear “marriage gap” along economic lines. “Those in this less-advantaged group are as likely as others to want to marry, butthey place a higher premium on economic security as a condition for marriage.”

In sum, data from the last 10 years shows more Americans now waiting to marry, compared with a few years ago, but fewer college-educated Americans waiting than non-college educated. A drop-off in fertility occurred in 2008-2009 and was more pronounced among non-college educated women than for women with advanced degrees.

The state of the U.S. economy may have been a factor in the drop-off in fertility, and an income-based “marriage gap” may be emerging. However, these trends could turn out to be a blip. A longer-term decline in marriage is seen in decades-old trends of fewer weddings among twenty-somethings and rising cohabitation arrangements in lieu of tying the knot.

– Patrick Tucker

Sources: The U.S. Census Bureau,

Stephanie Ventura, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,


“Declining numbers [of married people] could reflect the passing of members of an older generation that had higher marriage rates.”

Robert Groves, director, U.S. Census Bureau

Originally published in THE FUTURIST, March-April 2011


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