What Is Going on With Marriage?

You’ve probably heard the?latest marriage narrative: With the recession upon us, young lovers can’t afford to marry.? As appealing as this story is, it has one problem: It’s not true.

I have?an op-ed in today’s New York Times, making this point at length.? But sometimes a picture does a better job.? Here’s the marriage rate, measured as new marriage certificates issued each year, per 1000 people.? The grey bars are recessions.


If marriage declines during a recession, you should see the blue line head a bit further south during grey periods.? But we don’t see any systematic pattern.? In fact, the marriage rate appears amazingly insensitive to the business cycle.

To an economist, it isn’t surprising that marriage remains popular during a recession-after all, a working spouse provides wonderful insurance against an income hit.

The New York Times (among?others)?reported that the “long-term decline in marriage accelerated during the severe recession.”? Is this true?? Let’s zoom in on the past 30 years to see if there’s any extraordinary movements evident in the latest data:


Nope.? It turns out that the?data for 2009 are as boring as the numbers for each of the past thirty years.? If you squint, you might see a tiny?blip in 2009.? But it’s tiny and the sort of blip that you see in any other year.? And it also turns out that the marriage rate was above the trend line in the previous two recessions.? The real story here is that the marriage rate is sticking doggedly to the trend line.

There is still an important question as to what is driving the decline in marriage.? But equally, let’s not overstate the implications of the declining marriage rate.? Right now, 81?percent of all Americans have married at least once by age forty.? That is, marriage remains a central institution in American life.

So what has driven the largely misplaced commentary about the recession leading to a decline in marriage?? As usual, it’s all about understanding the data.? Many reports focused on the?proportion between 25 and 34 who are married.? But that’s crazy.? First, with the?median age at first marriage rising to 28 for men and 26 for women, tons of these folks are yet to marry.? And second, the number of wedding rings tells us a lot about decisions made many years prior, and almost nothing about today’s trends.

You can read the full op-ed?here, which also sketches out my research with?Betsey Stevenson describing what we think is a new model of marriage-“hedonic marriage“-which is based on consumption complementarities.? You might also ask: Given that Betsey is a co-pilot on all this research, why isn’t she a co-author of the op-ed? Well, she’s spending this year?serving as Chief Economist of the Labor Department, and while she’s free to talk about the administration’s labor policy, this leaves me to talk about?family economics.? So perhaps there’s something to production complementarities after all.

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  1. Tim says:

    Per 1,000 people (total) or per 1,000 people (between 20 – 40). The proportion of 40+ year old American’s has grown recently, so you’d expect the number of marriage licenses issued per 1,000 people (total) to go down. Concentrate on the right range and you’ll get a different picture. Those “blips” may be more pronounced when not watered down with an inflated denominator.

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  2. grberry says:

    One possible explanation of the trend – as the population ages, has the umber of people of “marriage age” per 1,000 people been dropping as well? People of “marriage age” isn’t a well defined term, of course, but it ought to be open to approximation. If that line has been dropping, the line we should be looking at is marriage licenses per 1,000 people of “marriage age”.

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  3. Eric M. Jones says:

    How does the divorce rate affect this? I have heard that the average length of marriage in the 19th century was about the same as today, but was driven by the death of one or the other spouse (or both).

    I surmise that women’s economic power, women’s birth control, lifespan, reduction in births-per-woman will cause this trend to continue.

    And it’s a great thing!

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  4. Mike says:

    It should be clarified, that young lovers are likely saying they cannot afford the wedding they *want*. My wife and I got filed for whatever the filing fee was at the JP’s office. Marriage, or more specifically the act of getting married, does not have to cost large sums of money.

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  5. Ian Callum says:

    My reading of the chart is that it’s essentially flat until the early nineties (with a bump at the end of WWII reflecting return of military men). So what changed in the early nineties? My guess is that women started to make incomes similar to men.

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  6. confridential says:

    With all the emphasis on marriage and the feeling that the government/media wants it to be mandatory this creates huge resentment and backlash to the idea formalizing relationships is what you have to do. I think if we stop validating people for just being married and using it as a criteria to judge people it would feel more natural and people will think more about marriage. I lived in Europe and I am from Caribbean descent and there is far less pressure to get married and less validation because you are married.

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  7. Yuchieh Lin says:

    I am wondering if we can see any difference between US citizen and non-US citizen (especially for those people come over US, purse degree, and decide to settle down in the US). My assumption is that these population might have higher marriage rates due to saving household expenses but I am not certain with this.

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  8. Shadowrider says:

    I’m a chemist so I look at this a little differently. Look at marriage as a reaction between a man an a woman to form a couple. The reaction progresses farther if the product couple is more stable/happy together than the reactant individuals. In the case of women, single life has been getting more attractive as an option for some time. A woman today can support herself and is not typically looked down upon for being single. There is less of a stigma for having children out of wedlock and birth control is common. Happy single women = fewer married couples.

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