The coming divorce decline

Unless something changes outside the demogosphere, the divorce rate is going to go down in the coming years.

Divorce represents a number of problems from a social science perspective.

    • Most people seem to assume “the divorce rate” is always going up, compared with the good old days, which are supposed to be the whole past but are actually represented by the anomalous 1950s.
    • On other hand, social scientists have known for a few decades that “the divorce rate” has actually been declining since the 1980s. That shows up in the official statistics, with the simple calculation — known as the refined divorce rate — of the number of divorces per 1,000 married women.
    • On the third hand, the official statistics are very flawed. The federal system, which relies on states voluntarily coughing up their divorce records, broke down in the 1990s and no one fixed it (hello, California doesn’t participate). In the debate over different ways of getting good answers, a key 2014 paper from Sheela Kennedy and Stephen Ruggles showed that the decline in divorce after 1980 was mostly because the whole married population was getting older, and older people get divorced less. That refined divorce rate doesn’t account for age patterns. When you remove the age patterns from the data, you see a continuously increasing divorce rate. Yikes!
    • On the fourth hand, Kennedy and Ruggles stopped in about 2010. Since then, the very divorce-prone, multi-marrying, multi-divorcing Baby Boomers have moved further out of their peak action years, and it’s increasingly clear that divorce rates really are falling for younger people.

In my new analysis, which I wrote up as a short paper for submission to the Population Association of America 2019 meetings, I argue that all signs point to a divorce decline in the coming years. Here is the paper on SocArXiv, where you will also find the data and code. And here is the story, in figures (click to enlarge).

1. The proportion of married women who divorce each year has fallen 18% in the decade after 2008. (There are reasons to do this for women — some neutral, some good, some bad — but one good thing nowadays is at least this includes women divorcing women.) And when you control for age, number of times married, years married, education, race/ethnicity, and nativity, it has still fallen 8%.

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2. The pattern of increasing divorce at older ages, described by Susan Brown and I-Fen Lin as gray divorce, is no longer apparent. In the decade after 2008, the only apparent change in age effects is the decline at younger ages, holding other variables constant.

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3. The longer term trends, identified by Kennedy and Ruggles, which I extend to 2016, show that the upward trajectory is all about older people. These are prevalences (divorced people in the population), not divorce rates, but they are good for illustrating this trend.

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4. In fact, when you look just at the last decade, all of the decline in age-specific divorce rates is among people under age 45. This implies there will be more older people who have been married a long time, which means low divorce rates. Also, their kids won’t be as likely to have divorced parents, although more kids will have parents who aren’t married, which might work in the other direction. (You can ignore then under-20s, who are 0.2% of the total.)

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5. Finally, to get a glimpse of the future, I looked at women who report getting married in the year before the survey, and how they have changed between 2008 and 2016 on traits associated with the risk of divorce. They clearly show a lower divorce-risk profile. They are more likely to be in their first marriage, to have college degrees, to be older, and to have no children in their households (race/ethnicity appears to be a wash, with fewer Whites but more Latinas).

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6. Finally finally, I also looked at the spouses of the newly-married women, and made an arbitrary divorce-protection scale, with one point to each couple for each spouse who was: age 30 or more, White or Hispanic, BA or higher education, first marriage, and no own children. Since 2008 the high scale scores have become more common and the low scores have become rarer.

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7. It’s interesting that the decline in divorce goes against the (non-expert) conventional wisdom. And it is happening at a time when public acceptance of divorce has reached record levels (which might be part of why people think it’s growing more common — less stigma). Here are the trends in attitudes from Pew and Gallup:

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That’s my story — thanks for listening!

8 Comments

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8 responses to “The coming divorce decline

  1. Are more people never marrying?

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  2. Chris Wienke

    The conventional wisdom is correct in the sense that family instability continues to increase. Divorce is just one measure of family instability, and it’s not as useful as it used to be. While the overall divorce rate may be declining, redivorce rates are increasing, I believe. The serial marriage rate — people who have been married at least 3 times — is definitely increasing. Cohabitation, which is less stable than marriage, is rising, as is serial cohabitation, especially among young adults and recently married cohorts. And according to the NSFG, the percentage of women who have had 3 or more husbands or live-in partners by age 35 is increasing. There is a risk, I think, of painting a rosy picture about American family life by touting the declining divorce rate. Google “declining divorce rate,” and you’ll find a number of overly optimistic articles that do just that. In reality, adults today, and any children they have, are experiencing more change and upheaval in their personal and family lives than in the past.

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  3. Not sure if you are aware but your research is all over right wing media and you are being portrayed as a nutty leftist. I was convinced you were being misquoted until I looked up your paper. Your conclusion only addresses falling divorce rates as a bad thing by causing social inequality. Nothing about any positive benefits. Not sure you meant this. If not maybe you could comment or revise your paper.

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  4. Pingback: Breaking Millennial divorce drop news explained | Family Inequality

  5. Pingback: The Divorce Rate Is Dropping. But That May Not Be Good News | Time

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