Marriage, since when? (New Pew report)

The Pew Research Center has a new report on marriage trends that’s worth reading. But the comparison with 1960 is unfortunate.

First, though, the original part is their own survey data, where we learn, for example, that most people who aren’t married still want to get married:

For the historical comparison, the report uses 1960 to represent “then” and 2010 to represent “now.” That’s convenient from a data perspective, and half a century is a good round number to cover. But it misses the opportunity to show how anomalous the 1950s were in U.S. history.

Here is their chart on the increasing age at first marriage:

Here is the same data trend stretched back to 1890:

Source: U.S. Census Bureau (spreadsheet).

The change since 1960 is big and important. But the 1950s doesn’t represent the “traditional” family.

UPDATE: The Heritage Foundation has taken the opportunity of the Pew Report to have more fun with charts that offer misleading start dates. Here’s their version:

None of this is to deny the importance of the decline of marriage rates in the last half century. It’s just to say the trend is not linear from traditional-then to hell-in-a-handbasket-now.

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18 thoughts on “Marriage, since when? (New Pew report)

  1. Fascinating to take a longer view. Wonder what you’d find with fertility/birth rates and how that may change the national narrative we’re telling ourselves.


  2. Great job, as usual. But if this report and others “show how anomalous the 1950s were in U.S. history,” then they won’t need us to teach Soc of Family courses anymore!


  3. Also interesting is the spousal age difference over time sometimes (erroneously I suspect) interpreted as an index of gender inequality. I couldn’t paste the chart into the comment but you can find it at:

    It’s much more linear than the median ages themselves. Despite the long downward trend, the spousal age difference has been growing in the last decade (as it seems to have done in the 1940s and 1970s). Explanations? Wars?


    1. Wow, that’s something. Thanks! I like wars as an idea — removing younger men from the market? Question — I presume those age differences are among existing couples, not couples marrying?


      1. No these are taken directly from the chart you cite, so they are differences of couples marrying (at first marriage too, no?)


  4. I heard about the report on NPR yesterday and wanted to see you blog on it. Interesting point about the comparison period.

    One question – how does the average age at marriage handle the never married?


    1. It’s based on how many will probably eventually marry… Census standard definition: “The median age at first marriage is calculated indirectly by estimating the proportion of young people who will marry during their lifetime, calculating one-half of this proportion, and determining the age (at the time of the survey) of people at this half-way mark by osculatory interpolation. It does not represent the actual median age of the population who married during the calendar year. It is shown to the nearest tenth of a year. Henry S. Shryock and Jacob S. Siegel outline the osculatory procedure in Methods and Materials of Demography, First Edition (May 1973), Volume 1, pages 291-296.”

      Why this is called “osculatory” I’m not sure.


  5. I find this interesting. Thanks to Facebook (I realize this is non-scientific data), I cannot believe how many people I grew up with are very happily in long-term marriages (okay, maybe it’s the second one). Really, it’s opposite of alot of official data. Most of them had divorced parents or in my case parents that were not married. In the 80’s everyone worried about us but…

    There is a strong shift to the family (in various forms) occuring in Generation X and Y. I really wish that got more coverage. If there is anything to learn from the data I find on Facebook, family unity and marriage is strengthening and people are taking it more seriously. I see signs of life in the American family in new and varied forms.


  6. When I was in the crim biz, I posed a similar question when the talk was all about how crime rates soared in the sixties, and most commentaries assumed it was a departure from traditionally low rates. A longer view raised the question of whether it might not be a return to good old American high rates of crime and violence.


  7. The results in the first graph (desire to marry among never-married adults) would be fun to tease apart by age, etc, and also to compare with the distribution of responses to the same question asked of divorcees. Not that the Pew data have it in them.

    BTW, thanks for putting the Whiskeytown waltz, “Matrimony” (off of Faithless Street, fittingly enough, and sung by Caitlin Cary), into my head …

    “I don’t believe I care to marry,
    Though I cannot explain exactly why.
    Somehow it seems to me
    Matrimony is misery
    Simply a faster way to die.”


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