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.


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.


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".

Eric M. Jones

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!


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.

Ian Callum

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.


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.

Yuchieh Lin

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.


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.

Drill-Baby-Drill Drill Team

Its not the Marriage that is Expensive....it's the Divorce.

In the Best Case Scenario, there is an equitable three way split of all assets: Him, Her and Bernie (the Attorney).

Michael Ellis

Wait, are you saying that a New York Times reporter wrote a story based on their own personal biases rather than the facts?

Gosh, that would never happen, right?

Jeff Desa

I agree with Ian Callum. However, in addition to women now making incomes that can compete with men's, the 90's brought the advent of widely available pornography on the internet. The continued explosive growth of this industry and the ease as which pornography is accesible has certainly had a significant impact on relationships and marriage.


Since every marriage represents theft of income and wealth from the singles, the decline of marriage should be applauded by those who value justice.

I don't consider the many who are "yet to marry." I enjoy pondering the many who are "yet to divorce."

If gummint were to tax folks and confer the other 1000+ benefits without regard to marital status, I think you'd see the marriage numbers fall dramatically.


From your editorial:

"The decline in marriage, it turns out, is concentrated entirely among women with less education - those who likely have the least to gain from modern hedonic marriage."

Your inference seems counter-intuitive at best. It would seem more accurate to say:
"The decline in marriage, it turns out, is concentrated entirely among women with less education - those who likely have the least to contribute to the modern hedonic marriage."

Eric M. Jones

I would think this curve would track track the other way due to the relative increase in Hispanics and Catholics in the population.

It would be interesting to see how removing those groups from the data would change it.


It's possible that the marriage rate is insensitive to macroeconomics, but not micro incentives. Apply game theory to it: men in particular face inferior prospects in family court regarding income division, child custody and alimony. But rather than chalk this up to a fear of commitment, might it be an entirely rational response to the risks?


Not sure if the statistic is kept anywhere, but I'd love to see the number of annual marriages per 1000 that follow a pregnancy.

Between legalization of abortions, public effort to reduce unprotected sexual activity, and reduction in the stigma of an unmarried mother, I would postulate that there are fewer pregnancy-induced marriages today than there were 30 years ago.


Is the original data (from 1860 onwards) proprietary or can you tell us where to get it to do the analysis for ourselves?


Since the decline in marriage is primarily among women who are less educated, perhaps this is because there is a greater perception among these women than among similar women in the past that they don't need to marry to attain a higher standard of living. Of course, since these women are less educated, they may not be able to discern between perception and reality, and eventually they reach their late 40's, say, having not married and are now not in any position to marry, and just give up on finding a suitable marriage partner.

I would think the women's movement, television, movies, and other societal factors like birth control and easily obtained abortions contribute to the perception that marriage is not required for attaining improved financial status in the future, but if a woman is not well educated, this isn't necessarily true. And that very lack of education creates a negative feedback loop that contributes to the problem.


A typical working poor Caucasians with 20k credit card debts and 65K student loan debt

Money is the leading cause of today's divorces.
Fifty-eight percent of divorced couples in the United States cited financial problems as the primary reason for the demise of their marriage. according to a survey conducted by Citigroup.
Financial incompatibility is one way of explaining the reason money is the primary cause of divorce.
Former specialist of Keep Up with the Jonese


hey, some of dis things dat induce marriages is d understandn nd endourance.