Marriage metabolism update

Updating the original post about this paper.

I did not realize the Human Mortality Database posts US life tables before NCHS does. They posted the 2021 life table in January 2023. That means I could update my paper, Rethinking marriage metabolism: The declining frequency of marital events in the United States, with the 2021 marital events measured in the American Community Survey. That’s especially good because the 2020 data was unreliable. The revised abstract now reads:

Previous research has employed an inadequate measure of marriage metabolism, but the concept may be useful for understanding the system of marriage. This paper addresses changes in the incidence of marital events in the United States from 2008 to 2021. I offer a measure, the Total Rate of Marital Events (TRME), of the projected lifetime experience of marital transitions (marriage, divorce, and widowhood) for a life table cohort. I find that the TRME declined steeply over this relatively short period: 22 percent for men and 19 percent for women. All three components declined in every age group below 90. I suggest that the slowing churn of the marriage system reflects the diminished social presence of marriage in daily life – if not its declining importance – which coincides with the increasingly selective status of married life. A higher status marriage system is a smaller, slower, and more stable marriage system.

The 2021 marital events data show a rebound from the very low levels of marriage, divorce, and (very problematically) widowhood recorded by the ACS in 2020. I didn’t remove the 2020 results from the paper, but I base the conclusions on the change from 2008 to 2021. (Text below is adapted from the earlier post.)

Is there such a thing as the “marriage metabolism” of a society, and if so, what does it mean? People have used the concept in the past, but they only included rates of marriage and divorce. Digging into the history of this research and its etiology (especially the “retreat from marriage” — a term I think demographers never should have used), I think the metabolism concept was meant to capture the choices people make about marriage, so they excluded death and widowhood. That’s a mistake, because if you’re interested in the properties of the system, why would you leave out the main way people exit from it? It doesn’t matter whether a person choses widowhood, what matters is their widowhood shrank the body of married people and increased the pool of unmarried people. So I made a measure that includes all the “marital events” in the American Community Survey: marriage, divorce, and widowhood.

The details are below, but the gist of it is I used a life table approach. I calculated the proportion of people at each age who got married, divorced, or widowhood with the ACS data. Then I took the U.S. life table, which tells you how many people out of a hypothetical cohort of 100,000 births are still alive at every age. By multiplying those proportions times the number of survivors, at each age (the Lx column, formally), I can see how many people out of the original 100,000 experience each event. If you add up all the ages, you get the lifetime number of events per person. Fun!

The details are in the paper. The gist of it is the Total Rate of Marital Events fell about 22% for men and 19% for women in 13 years. That seems like a lot to me. Also, the total number of marriages per person fell below 1.0 during the time, which may be something of a milestone.

Conclusion: “Thus, one partial explanation for falling marriage, divorce, and widowhood rates may be greater selectivity into marriage, with fewer people achieving a more desirable status – and as a result exiting that status less often. A higher status marriage system is a smaller, slower, and more stable marriage system.”

The Stata code, IPUMS data extract, and Excel file with life tables and results (sorry!) are in the supplemental materials, here:

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