Visualizing marriage decline

During our exam review, a student raised his hand and asked me if I could straighten out the various numbers and graphs I’d used to describe trends in marriage. What is the best number? I don’t know, but here are some words, a couple numbers, and some words about them.

I have discussed how the proportion of people ever married has declined, and how the average age at first marriage has increased. But here’s another way of looking at it (maybe not what the student was hoping I would offer). What if a single person lived one year over and over again for their whole lives, and in each year they spent a proportion of the year married that equalled the proportion of all people married that year. So, if 20% of people were married, you would say the imaginary person spent .20 of the year married. If you add up those proportions, you would get the average number of years spent in marriage for the population (if nothing changed). That may not be a realistic number as a description of anyone’s actual experience, but it’s a convenient way of comparing one year – or one group in the population – to another, to see who is spending more time in marriage.

Here’s what it looks like for the whole U.S. population, comparing 1960 to 2008:

This tells you more than the age at marriage, because it factors in divorces and remarriages. And it’s a nice way of summarizing life “these days.” You can also translate this into proportions of total adult life — so, around 1960 folks used to spend about 77% of their adult lives married, and now it’s 57% (up to age 65).

Recently, Andrew Cherlin has described a high or increasing importance of marriage, and this caused confusion among some students. He refers to marriage as a “capstone,” or a crowning accomplishment of adulthood rather than a launching pad into adulthood. That change in perception, however, does not necessarily represent an increased importance of marriage, but rather a shift in its meaning (and rationale for its timing).

And Cherlin has described the “marriage metabolism” of the U.S. as being much higher than other rich countries. That concept, which was used by Schoen and Weinick in 1993, refers to the churning in marriage, including marriages and divorces. So, the U.S. is higher than Sweden (though they have more divorce), because the U.S. has more marriage. And the U.S. is higher than Italy (though they have more marriage), because the U.S. has more divorce. That may be a measure of the frequency of marital events, but the frequency of divorce isn’t a measure of marriage’s importance in social life.

Schoen and Weinick said it well, I think: “Although marriage continues to be important in the lives of the great majority of Americans, recent changes suggest that it has retreated to a position of diminished prominence in the life cycle.” The years-married figure is a way to visualize that.

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