Is America Heading Toward a Post-Marriage Society?

Is America Heading Toward a Post-Marriage Society?

With fewer adults deciding to marry than ever in American history, it's not hard to wonder what a post-marriage society would look like—and are we on our way there already?

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Rachel L. Swarns, writing in The New York Times, explores the latest in "anti-marriage" trends: Baby boomers are no longer sticking out bad marriages, nor are they necessarily jumping back into marriages following divorces. This follows another recent Times article about the growing numbers of young, working class single mothers in the town of Lorain, Ohio, with writers Jason DeParle and Sabrina Tavernise calling it "the new normal." That prompted us to ask if perhaps marriage was becoming a "luxury" of the rich and well-educated, as those groups seem to be the ones continuing in greatest numbers down the wedded road.

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Need more proof? According to Pew Research statistics released in December, 51 percent of adults 18 or older in the U.S. are married, "placing them on the brink of becoming a minority," writes Carol Morello in The Washington Post. This is a fairly significant drop from the 57 percent of U.S. adults who were married in 2000, and even further from the 1960s, when 72 percent of adults were married. But stats also show that today people are marrying later (in the '60s, the median age for brides was 20!), and many of them are staying together longer when they do so. So it's not that Americans aren't marrying; it's just that they view marriage somewhat differently, and are doing it because they choose to, not because they have to.

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The opposite side of that is the choice to no longer be married. Of the women and men now approaching their 60s who are likely to have first married 20- or 30-some years ago, Swarns writes, "Over the past 20 years, the divorce rate among baby boomers has surged by more than 50 percent, even as divorce rates over all have stabilized nationally. At the same time, more adults are remaining single. The shift is changing the traditional portrait of older Americans: About a third of adults ages 46 through 64 were divorced, separated or had never been married in 2010, compared with 13 percent in 1970, according to an analysis of recently released census data conducted by demographers at Bowling Green State University, in Ohio."

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The numbers are expected to rise as more younger people who haven't decided to marry (and may never do so) also grow older, a non-marrying "trend" which Susan L. Brown, co-director of the National Center for Family & Marriage Research at Bowling Green State, told Swarns would "transform the lives of many older people." (And younger people as well, who may find themselves needing to step in to care for single, aging parents.) Along with possible government costs -- "Unmarried baby boomers are five times more likely to live in poverty than their married counterparts" -- and health and healthcare concerns, there are worries about whether these newly single people, already financially bent by the recession, will ever be able to retire; and whether those who had been married and now find themselves without that social circle can readjust. Beyond that, are we losing something deeper at the core of society?

“It makes me very sad,” said Ms. Stillman, who has several friends who have recently divorced. “Maybe as a society we don’t fight hard enough to stay together anymore.”

Worrisome notions, yes, but at the same time, there's a sense of freedom and even progress in realizing that not everyone has to be married -- and that happy singledom is the choice above an unhappy marriage at any age, particularly as we live longer and with more financial independence. "'I wasn't sentimental. I was like, it's time to let go,' said Ms. Dunn, 55, when discussing her decision to sell her wedding ring after her divorce," writes Swarns. There's also the idea that we need to learn to accept that older people, whom previously we might have assumed were just married and therefore "taken care of" and beyond our concerns, might not be.

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But even despite the stats, it doesn't seem like a post-marriage society is immediately on the horizon. If anything, what is is a society in which marriage isn't a necessity but is a choice -- and a choice, optimists might say, done for the right reasons. Take the adorable couple now holding the Guinness World Record for oldest combined age on their wedding day. They're 95 and 98, and, after living together for 18 years, finally made it official. Before, they were just "too busy" having fun. If a post-marriage society means that those who marry are doing it because they have chosen to do with open eyes and hearts, then mazel tov.

Image via Shutterstock via Mincemeat.