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.

Panem et Circanses

#2 grberry: Yes! The population has been aging, which probably accounts for all of the downward drift the past few decades.

eleanore wells

Marriage will survive but, as the numbers show, it is also changing. For another perspective:



In addition to many of those 25-34 year-olds being "yet to marry," many of them these days are probably not going to marry at all. It's becoming increasingly more common for couples to cohabitate for long periods of time and even raise children together, all without choosing to get that piece of paper. This may be partially due, as someone else suggested, to the fact that women have begun to make salaries closer to those of men in recent decades.


My observations of a few unmarried female friends is quite simple....the longer you wait (whether it be due to getting an education, pursuing a career, whatever), the more set in your ways you become and the less likely you are to find "Mr. Right." One of them eventually "settled" for someone, only to get divorced in a few years. Another remains in her late 30's, single, and yes, now somewhat desperate but pretty much resigned to spend the rest of her life unmarried.

It will be interesting to see what happens to the marriage rate of single people as they age.....will they eventually marry because they don't want to be alone anymore, or will they be satisfied to remain single, flexible, and free, albeit a bit lonlier?


Where mortgages are underwater, married couples cannot afford to *divorce*.


@Justin Wolfers and your wife,

The two of you demonstrate no knowledge of family economics, so I'll share what drives down marriage rates:

Women partner with Surrogate Husband who provides them with earned-income credit, WIC, section 8 housing, Head Start, title 1, govt't-assisted housing, free-and-reduced school meals, govt't-assisted recreation, food stamps, Medicaid.

Women with children receive these benefits over women without children, and men. When her children age out, she'll have another child, at her age of 40, in order to assure herself of 18 more years of benefits from Surrogate Husband. She refers to this as "going alone". .... ie. just her and Surrogate Husband.

A man must earn at least $35,000 to compete with Surrogate Husband. if less, he's discarded. As Medicaid expands (ObamaCare mandates) to offering maternity benefits to those women earning up to $60K - %70K, the marriage rates continue to drop.

#18,tim, above stated this more abstractly.

Agree with #24 above. Highly educated career women get picky, and will never marry.


Carlos en Urbana

The comparisson is bias. Going to the market without information is not the same as going well informed. In other words, you have some heteroskedasticity in your model.

Would be better try to compare the divorce rate instead the Marriage Licences because is then when the people have information about the true revelation of the spouse.


The more interesting thing in this chart is that the frequency of recessionary periods dramatically lessened after 1933, perhaps because of the passage of the Glass-Steagall Act in that year.


First you gotta find the love of your life because you think she is the right person. Then later you guys get divorce. It pretty much sucks.


In New Jersey, if a woman murders her child, she still qualifies for lifetime alimony from her husband, which she is entitled to receive in jail.

In MA, alimony is also for life.

96% of all alimony in the US is paid by men.

In CA, child support can be calculated up to 50% of a man's gross income.

Child support is tax-free to recipients throughout the US - the taxes are paid by the obligor.

Child custody awards have not changed since the mid-70s. 85% of the time, women get custody of children in a divorce, despite the massive body of evidence that fatherlessness places children at risk throughout life.

Family court and the institution of marriage have evolved to focus on one thing: the transfer of wealth from men to women and to the State.

Men are educating themselves - that's why marriage rates are down.