I think the big demographic story of 2021 is likely to be the very large decline in births. I think everything points that way and I think it’s going to be quite shocking when we see how big it is. — Philip Cohen, October 27, 2020
After reviewing the state of the economic and social shock of the pandemic, with implications for family processes and events (sex, contraception, pregnancy, birth, marriage, and divorce), I presented some new information on births and marriage.
Here is the data on births, in Florida and California, the only states I found that have monthly updated birth numbers through September (subject to revision, but probably not by much). Both show large declines in births in 2020. Which seems hard to link to the pandemic, gestation times being what they are (but maybe more reasonable than last month’s report). There may already be more miscarriages and abortions, or maybe fewer premature births? I don’t know. If these declines have nothing to do with the pandemic, and they’re just the continuation of our trend toward lower birth rates, then that’s pretty shocking, too.
This is the total births by month and year, with 2018 and 2019 compared with 2020 so far:
Here are the monthly totals compared with the annual average decline in over the previous three years, which is 2.9% in California and 0.7% in Florida, which I call “predicted.”
In September 2020 versus September 2019, births were 6.1% lower in Florida and 9.6% lower in California. There is a lot of big news in the news these days, but I think this is still pretty big news. Again, if this has nothing to do with the pandemic that’s even more shocking.
In “The Coming Divorce Decline” I showed the U.S. divorce rate falling from 2008 to 2017, and predicted that, because the married population was being stocked with increasingly non-divorce-prone marriages, the rate would continue to fall. After the first draft (based on 2016 data), divorce fell in 2017, providing the first support for my prediction before the paper was even “published” (accepted for Socius). Now the 2018 data is out, and divorce has become less common still.
Here’s a quick update.
Based on the number of divorces reported in the survey each year, by sex, and the number of married people, I calculate the refined divorce rate, or the number of divorces per 1,000 married people. That fell another 3% for both women and men in 2018, to 15.9 and 14.3 respectively (the rates differ because these are self reports and women report more).
When I run the model from the paper again on the new data (on women only), I can show the drop in the adjusted odds of divorce, updating Figure 1 of the paper (the 2018 change in an unadjusted model is significant at p=.06; adjusted is p=.14, the adjusted change from 2016 is significant at p=.002).
For other takes on the latest data, see this report on the marriage-divorce ratio from Valerie Schweizer, and this on geographic variation from Colette Allred, both at the National Center for Family and Marriage Research.
The data and code for the paper are available here. This update uses the same code with one new year of data.
If you like my new Stata figure scheme (modified from Gray Kimbrough’s Uncluttered) you’re welcome to it: here.
Slides from my presentation this fall at the European Divorce Conference are here.
“The Coming Divorce Decline, ” which I first posted a year ago, has now been published by the journal Socius. Three thousand people have downloaded it from SocArXiv, I presented it at the Population Association, and it’s been widely reported (media reports), but now it’s also “peer reviewed.” Since Socius is open access, I posted their PDF on SocArXiv, and now that version appears first at the same DOI or web address (paper), while the former editions are also available.
Improvement: Last time I posted about it here I had a crude measure of divorce risk with one point each for various risk factors. For the new version I fixed it up, using a divorce prediction model for people married less than 10 years in 2017 to generate a set of divorce probabilities that I apply to the newly-wed women from 2008 to 2017:
…the coefficients from this model are applied to newly married women from 2008 to 2017 to generate a predicted divorce probability based on 2017 effects. The analysis asks what proportion of the newly married women would divorce in each of their first 10 years of marriage if 2017 divorce propensities prevailed and their characteristics did not change.
The result looks like this, showing the annual probability falling from almost 2.7% to less than 2.4%:
The fact that this predicted probability is falling is the (now improved) basis for my prediction that divorce rates will continue to decline in the coming years: the people marrying now have fewer risk factors. (The data and code for all this is up, too).
Prediction aside: The short description of study preregistration is “specifying your plan in advance, before you gather data.” You do this with a time-stamped report so readers know you’re not rejiggering the results after you collect data to make it look like you were right all along. This doesn’t always make sense with secondary data because the data is already collected before we get there. However, in this case I was making predictions about future data not yet released. So the first version of this paper, posted last September and preserved with a time stamp on SocArXiv, is like a preregistration of the later versions, effectively predicting I would find a decline in subsequent years if I used the same models — which I did. People who use data that is released on a regular schedule, like ACS, CPS, or GSS, might consider doing this in the future.
Rejection addendum: Sociological Science rejected this — as they do, in about 30 days, with very brief reviews — and based on their misunderstandings I made some clarifications and explained the limitations before sending it to Socius. Since the paper was publicly available the whole time this didn’t slow down the progress of science, and then I improved it, so I’m happy about it.
Just in case you’re worried that this rejections means the paper might be wrong, I’m sharing their reviews here, as summarized by the editor. If you read the current version you’ll see how I clarified these points.
* While the analyses are generally sensible, both Consulting Editors point out the paper’s modest contribution to the literature relative to Kennedy and Ruggles (2014) and Hemez (2017). The paper cites both of these papers but does not make clear how the paper adds to our understanding derived from those papers. If the relatively modest extension in the time frame in this paper is sociologically consequential, the paper does not make the case clearly.
* There is more novelty in the paper’s estimates of the annual divorce probability for newly-married women (shown in Table 3 and Figure 3), based on estimating a divorce model for the most recent survey year, and then applying the coefficients from that model to prior years. This procedure was somewhat difficult for the readers to follow, but issues were raised, most notably the question of the sensitivity of the results to the adjustments made. As one CE noted, “Excluding those in the first year of marriage is problematic as newlyweds have a high rate of divorce. Also, why just married in the last 10 years? Consider whether married for the first time vs remarried matters. Also, investigate the merits of an age restriction given the aging of the population Kennedy and Ruggles point to.”
You can really do a lot with the common public misperception that divorce is always going up. Brad Wilcox has been taking advantage of that since at least 2009, when he selectively trumpeted a decline in divorce (a Christmas gift to marriage) as if it was not part of an ongoing trend.
I have reported that the divorce rate in the U.S. (divorces per married woman) fell 21 percent from 2008 to 2017. And yet yesterday, Faithwire’s Will Maule wrote, “With divorce rates rocketing across the country, it can be easy to lose a bit of hope in the God-ordained bond of marriage.”
The program, which has recently become an independent nonprofit organization called Communio, used the latest marketing techniques to “microtarget” outreach, engaged local churches to maximize its reach and influence, and deployed skills training to better prepare individuals and couples for the challenges they might face. COFI highlights how employing systems thinking and leveraging the latest in technology and data sciences can lead to significant progress in addressing our urgent marriage crisis.
The program claims 50,000 people attended four-hour “marriage and faith strengthening programs,” and further made 20 million Internet impressions “targeting those who fit a predictive model for divorce.” So, have they increased marriage and reduced divorce? I don’t know, and neither do they, but they say they do.
Funny aside, the results website today says “Communio at work: Divorce drops 24% in Jacksonville,” but a few days ago the same web page said 28%. That’s probably because Duval County (which is what they’re referring to) just saw a SHOCKING 6% INCREASE IN DIVORCE (my phrase) in 2018 — the 10th largest divorce rate increase in all 40 counties in Florida for which data are available (see below). But anyway, that’s getting ahead of the story.
Gimme the report
The 28% result came from this report by Brad Wilcox and Spencer James, although they don’t link to it. That’s what I’ll focus on here. The report describes the many hours of ministrations, and the 20 million Internet impressions, and then gets to the heart of the matter:
We answer this question by looking at divorce and marriage trends in Duval County and three comparable counties in Florida: Hillsborough, Orange, and Escambia. Our initial data analysis suggests that the COFI effort with Live the Life and a range of religious and civic partners has had an exceptional impact on marital stability in Duval County. Since 2016, the county has witnessed a remarkable decline in divorce: from 2015 to 2017, the divorce rate fell 28 percent. As family scholars, we have rarely seen changes of this size in family trends over such a short period of time. Although it is possible that some other factor besides COFI’s intervention also helped, we think this is unlikely. In our professional opinion, given the available evidence, the efforts undertaken by COFI in Jacksonville appear to have had a marked effect on the divorce rate in Duval County.
A couple things about these very strong causal claims. First, they say nothing about how the “comparable counties” were selected. Florida seems to have 68 counties, 40 of which the Census gave me population counts for. Why not use them all? (You’ll understand why I ask when they get to the N=4 regression.) Second, how about that “exceptional impact,” the “remarkable decline” “rarely seen” in their experience as family scholars? Note there is no evidence in the report of the program doing anything, just the three year trend. And while it is a big decline, it’s one I would call “occasionally seen.” (It helps to know that divorce is generally going down — something the report never mentions.)
To put the decline in perspective, first a quick national look. In 2009 there was a big drop in divorce, accelerating the ongoing decline, presumably related to the recession (analyzed here). It was so big that nine states had crude divorce rate declines of 20% or more in that one year alone. Here is what 2008-2009 looked like:
So, a drop in divorce on this scale is not that rare in recent times. This is important background Wilcox is (comfortably) counting on his audience not knowing. So what about Florida?
Wilcox and James start with this figure, which shows the number of divorces per 1000 population in Duval County (Jacksonville), and the three other counties:
Again, there is no reason given for selecting these three counties. To test the comparison, which evidently shows a faster decline in Duval, they perform two regression models. (To their credit, James shared their data with me when I requested it — although it’s all publicly available this was helpful to make sure I was doing it the same way they did.) First, I believe they ran a regression with an N of 4, the dependent variable being the 2014-2017 decline in divorce rate, and the independent variable being a dummy for Duval. I share the complete dataset for this model here:
I don’t know exactly what they did with the second model, which must somehow how have a larger sample than 4 because it has 8 variables. Maybe 16 county-years? Anyway, doesn’t much matter. Here is their table:
How to evaluate a faster decline among a general trend toward lower divorce rates? If you really wanted to know if the program worked, you would have to study the program, people who were in the program and people who weren’t and so on. (See this writeup of previous marriage promotion disasters, studied correctly, for a good example.) But I’m quite confident that this conclusion is ridiculous and irresponsible: “In our professional opinion, given the available evidence, the efforts undertaken by COFI in Jacksonville appear to have had a marked effect on the divorce rate in Duval County.” No one should take such a claim seriously except as a reflection on the judgment or motivations of its author.
Because the “comparison counties” was bugging me, I got the divorce counts from Florida’s Vital Statistics office (available here), and combined them with Census data on county populations (table S0101 on census.data.gov). Since 2018 has now come out, I’m showing the change in each county’s crude divorce rate from 2015, before Communio, through 2018.
You can see that Duval has had a bigger drop in divorce than most Florida counties — 32 of which saw divorce rates fall in this period. Of the counties that had bigger declines, Monroe and Santa Rosa are quite small, but Lake County is mid-sized (population 350,000), and bigger than Escambia, which is one of the comparison counties. How different their report could have been with different comparison cases! This is why it’s a good idea to publicly specify your research design before you collect your data, so people don’t suspect you of data shenanigans like goosing your comparison cases.
What about that 2018 rebound? Wilcox and James stopped in 2017. With the 2018 data we can look further. Eighteen counties had increased divorce rates in 2018, and Duval’s was large at 6%. Two of the comparison cases (Hillsborough and Escambria) had decreases in divorce, as did the state’s largest county, Miami-Dade (down 5%).
To summarize, Duval County had a larger than average decline in divorce rates in 2014-2017, compared with the rest of Florida, but then had a larger-than-average increase in 2018. That’s it.
Obviously, Communio wants to see more marriage, too, but here not even Wilcox can turn the marriage frown upside down.
Why no boom in marriage, with all those Internet hits and church sessions? They reason:
This may be because the COFI effort did not do much to directly promote marriage per se (it focused on strengthening existing marriages and relationships), or it may be because the effort ended up encouraging Jacksonville residents considering marriage to proceed more carefully. One other possibility may also help explain the distinctive pattern for Duval County. Hurricane Irma struck Jacksonville in September of 2017; this weather event may have encouraged couples to postpone or relocate their weddings.
OK, got it — so they totally could have increased marriage if they had wanted to. Except for the hurricane. I can’t believe I did this, but I did wonder about the hurricane hypothesis. Here are the number of marriages per month in Duval County, from 13 months before Hurrican Irma (September 2017), to 13 months after, with Septembers highlighted.
There were fewer marriages in September 2017 than 2016, 51 fewer, but September is a slow month anyway. And they almost made up for it with a jump in December, which could be hurricane-related postponements. But then the following September was no better, so this hypothesis doesn’t look good. (Sheesh, how much did they get paid to do this report? I’m not holding back any of the analysis here.)
Aside: Kristen & Jessica had a beautiful wedding in Jacksonville just a few days after Hurricane Irma. Jessica recalled, “Hurricane Irma hit the week before our wedding, which damaged our venue pretty badly. As it was outdoors on the water, there were trees down all over the place and flooding… We were very lucky that everything was cleaned up so fast. The weather the day of the wedding turned out to be perfect!” I just had to share this picture, for the Communio scrapbook:
So, to recap: Christian philanthropists and intrepid social scientists have pretty much reversed social disintegration and the media is just desperate to keep you from finding out about it.
Also, Brad Wilcox lies, cheats, and steals. And the people who believe in him, and hire him to carry their social science water, don’t care.
Today I sent the following letter to the Maryland House Judiciary Committee, which is scheduled to hold a hearing on these bills tomorrow. Under current law in Maryland, marriage is permitted as young as age 15 with parental consent and evidence of pregnancy or childbirth, and age 16-17 with one or the other, and these exceptions are granted by county clerks rather than judges. By my calculations, from 2008 to 2017, based on the American Community Survey, the annual marriage rate for girls ages 15-16 was 5 per 1000 in Maryland, behind only Hawaii, Nevada, and West Virginia. HB 855 would raise the age at marriage to 18, while HB 1147 would establish an emancipated minor status, requiring review by a judge, under which 17-year-olds could marry. For more on the effort to end child marriage in the U.S., visit the Tahirih Justice Center site.
March 6, 2019
To the House Judiciary Committee:
I write in support of Maryland House Bill 855, concerning age requirements for marriage; and House Bill 1147, concerning the emancipation of minors.
My relevant background
I am a Professor of Sociology, and family demographer, at the University of Maryland, College Park, where I have been on the faculty since 2012. I also earned my PhD at the University of Maryland, College Park, in 1999, and I live in Silver Spring.
I have written two books and many peer-reviewed articles on family sociology, including on topics related to marriage and divorce, family structure, gender inequality, health and disability, infant mortality, adoption, race and ethnicity, and the division of labor.
I have served as a consultant to the U.S. Census Bureau on the measurement of family structure, and testified before Congress on gender discrimination.
My support of the bills
In general, the rise of the age at marriage and childbearing in U.S. have been positive developments for women and children, allowing mothers to devote more years of early adulthood to education and career development, which is beneficial to both adults and their children.
Very early marriage in particular is detrimental to women’s opportunity to finish high school. More urgently, research and service work shows that very early marriage is usually unwanted, coerced, or forced. Very young women should not be expected to protect themselves legally or socially from such impositions, which are usually from older men and dominant family members. Very early marriage often follows statutory rape or other sexual assault, compounding rather than mitigating the harms of these crimes against children. Rather than protect a young woman, very early marriage instead provides protection from scrutiny for her abuser(s), and makes state intervention on her behalf all the more difficult to accomplish in the following years. The privacy and discretion we bestow upon families has benefits, of course, but it also makes the family a dangerous place for the victims of abuse.
Research, including my own, unequivocally shows that very early marriage leads to the highest rates of divorce. I have written several papers on divorce rates in the United States (see references). For illustration, here I used the same method of analysis, and present only the relationship between age at marriage and incidence of divorce. As you can see from the figure, divorce rates are highest by far – estimated at 2.5% per year – for women who married before age 18. This is about twice as high as divorce rates for those who marry in their 30s, for example. (These estimates hold constant other factors; data and code are available here.) The evidence is very strong.
I only reluctantly support increasing state restrictions on women’s freedom with regard to family choices, but in the case of marriage before adulthood I see the restriction as a protection from the exploitative behavior of others, rather than an imposition on young women’s rights.
At present in Maryland, exceptions allowing marriage before age 18 – based on pregnancy and/or parental consent – are granted without adequate legal review. Together, HB 855 and HB 1147 would set the minimum age at marriage in Maryland to 18, with an exception only for court emancipated minors of age 17. This would improve the state’s protection of young women from unwanted, coerced, forced, or ill-advised marriages without unduly restricting the freedom to marry for younger women (age 17), who may be emancipated by a court after a direct application and careful review of circumstances.
I urge your support for these bills. I would be happy to provide further information or testimony at your request.
Philip N. Cohen
Cohen, Philip N. 2015. “Recession and Divorce in the United States, 2008-2011. Population Research and Policy Review 33(5):615-628.
With everyone arguing about how much money MacKenzie Bezos should get in her divorce from Jeff Bezos, CNN asked me to write an op-ed. In it I argued that they are too rich and we could make divorce easier for everyone if we taxed away more of their money. I wrote:
There is a serious fairness issue here, but it doesn’t have to do with whether MacKenzie ends up with $1 billion or $68 billion. It’s that too many people can’t realistically exercise the same individual freedom that the Bezoses have — to choose to leave a failing or abusive marriage without facing crushing economic stress or hardship.
I called it, “There is a fairness issue with in the Bezos divorce (and it’s not about how much money MacKenzie Bezos will end up with),” which they changed to “The divorce issue that Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos don’t have to worry about.”
In the first version of the paper, based on data from 2008 to 2016, I wrote:
Because divorce rates have continued to fall for younger women, and because the risk profile for newly married couples has shifted toward more protective characteristics (such as higher education, older ages, and lower rates of higher-order marriages), it appears certain that – barring unforeseen changes – divorce rates will further decline in the coming years.
I don’t usually make predictions, but this one seemed safe. And now the 2017 data are consistent with what I anticipated: a sharp decline in divorce rates among those under age 45, and continued movement toward a more selective pattern in new marriages.
Here is the overall trend in divorces per 100 married women, 2008-2017, with and without the other variables in my model:
With the 2017 data, the divorce rate has now fallen 21% since 2008. To show the annual changes by age, I made this heatmap style table, with shading for divorce rates, rows for years, columns for age, and the column widths proportional to the age distribution (so 15-19 is a sliver, and 50-54 is the widest). The last row shows the sharp drop in divorce rates for women under age 45 in 2017:
To peek into the future a little more, I also made a divorce protective-factor scale, which looks just at newlywed couples in each year, and gives them one point for each spouse that is age 30 or more, White or Hispanic, has BA or higher education, is in a first marriage, and a point if the woman has no own children in the home at the time of the survey. So it ranges from 0 to 9. (I’m not saying these factors have equal importance, but they are all associated with lower odds of divorce.) The gist of it is new marriages increasingly have characteristics conducive to low divorce rates. In 2008 41% of couples had a score of 5 or more, and in 2017 it’s 50%.
So divorce rates will probably continue to fall for a while.
I am ambivalent about these trends. Divorce is often painful and difficult, and most people want to avoid it. The vast majority of Americans aspire to a lifelong marriage (or equivalent relationship). So even if it’s a falling slice of the population, I’m not complaining that they’re happy. Still, in an increasingly unequal society and a winner-take-all economy, two-degree couples with lasting marriages may be a buffer for the select few, but they aren’t a solution to our wider problems.
Here’s my media scrapbook, with some comment about open science process at the end.
The story was first reported by Ben Steverman at Bloomberg, who took the time to read the paper, interview me at some length, send the paper to Susan Brown (a key expert on divorce trends) for comment, and produce figures from the data I provided. I was glad that his conclusion focused on the inequality angle from my interpretation:
“One of the reasons for the decline is that the married population is getting older and more highly educated,” Cohen said. Fewer people are getting married, and those who do are the sort of people who are least likely to get divorced, he said. “Marriage is more and more an achievement of status, rather than something that people do regardless of how they’re doing.”
Many poorer and less educated Americans are opting not to get married at all. They’re living together, and often raising kids together, but deciding not to tie the knot. And studies have shown these cohabiting relationships are less stable than they used to be.
Fewer divorces, therefore, aren’t only bad news for matrimonial lawyers but a sign of America’s widening chasm of inequality. Marriage is becoming a more durable, but far more exclusive, institution.
The Bloomberg headline was, “Millennials Are Causing the U.S. Divorce Rate to Plummet.” Which proved irresistible on social media. I didn’t use the terms “millennials” (which I oppose), or “plummet,” but they don’t fundamentally misrepresent the findings.
Naturally, though, the Bloomberg headline led to other people misrepresenting the paper, like Buzzfeed, which wrote, “Well, according to a new study, millennials are now also ‘killing’ divorce.” Neither I nor Bloomberg said anyone was “killing” divorce; that was just a Twitter joke someone made, but Buzzfeed was too metameta to pick up on that. On the other hand, never complain about a Buzzfeed link, and they did link to the paper itself (generating about 800 clicks in a few days).
Then Fox 5 in New York did a Skype interview with me, and hit the bar scene to talk over the results (additional footage courtesy of my daughter, because nowadays you provide your own b-roll):
The next day Todaydid the story, with additional information and reporting from Bowling Green’s National Center for Family and Marriage Research, and Pew.
The Maryland news office saw the buzz and did their own story, which helped push it out.
Rush Limbaugh read from the Bloomberg article, and was just outraged: “Now, who but deranged people would look at it this way?”
How anybody thinks like this… You have to work to be this illogical. I don’t know where this kind of thing comes from, that a plummeting divorce rate is a bad sign for America in the left’s crazy world of inequality and social justice and their quest to make everybody the same. So that’s just an example of the… Folks, that is not… That kind of analysis — and this is a sociology professor at the University of Maryland. This is not stable. That kind of thinking is not… It’s just not normal. Yet there it is, and it’s out there, and it’s be widely reported by the Drive-By Media, probably applauded and supported by others. So where is this coming from? Where is all of this indecency coming from? Why? Why is it so taking over the American left?
The Limbaugh statement might have been behind this voicemail I received from someone who thinks I’m trying to “promote chaos” to “upend the social order”:
I had a much more reasonable discussion about marriage, divorce, and inequality in this interview with Lauren Gilger in KJZZ (Phoenix public radio).
The Chicago Tribuneeditorial board used the news to urge parents not to rush their children toward marriage:
This waiting trend may disturb older folks who followed a more traditional (rockier?) path and may be secretly, or not so secretly, wondering if there’s something wrong with their progeny. There isn’t. Remember: Unlike previous generations, many younger people have a ready supply of candidates at their fingertips in the era of Tinder and other dating apps. They can just keep swiping right. Our advice for parents impatient to marry off a son or daughter? Relax. The older they get, the less likely you’ll be stuck paying for the wedding.
The Catholic News Agency got an expert to chime in, “If only we could convince maybe more of them to enter into marriage, we’d be doing really well.”
I don’t know how TV or local news work, but somehow this is on a lot of TV stations. Here’s a selection.
Fox Business Network did a pretty thorough job.
Some local stations added their own reporting, like this one in Las Vegas:
And this one in Buffalo:
And this one in Boise, which brought in a therapist who says young people aren’t waiting as long to start couples therapy.
Jeff Waldorf on TYT Nation did an extended commentary, blaming capitalism:
Open science process
Two things about my process here might concern some people.
The first is promoting research that hasn’t been peer reviewed. USA Today was the only report I saw that specifically mentioned the study is not peer reviewed:
The study, which has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal, has been submitted for presentation at the 2019 Population Association of America meeting, an annual conference for demographers and sociologists to present research.
But, when Steverman interviewed me I emphasized to him that it was not peer-reviewed and urged him to consult other researchers before doing the story — he told me he had already sent it to Susan Brown. Having a good reporter consult a top expert who’s read the paper is as good a quality peer review as you often get. I don’t know everything Brown told him, but the quote he used apparently showed her endorsement of the main findings:
“The change among young people is particularly striking,” Susan Brown, a sociology professor at Bowling Green State University, said of Cohen’s results. “The characteristics of young married couples today signal a sustained decline [in divorce rates] in the coming years.”
For the story to be clear enough to become a news event, the research often has to be pretty simple. That’s the case here: what I’m doing is looking at an easily-identified trend and providing my interpretation of it. If this has to be peer-reviewed, then almost anything an academic says should be. Of course, I provided the publicly verifiable data and code, and there are a lot of people with the skills to check this if it concerned them.
On the other hand, there is a lot of research that is impossible to verify that gets reported. Prominent examples include the Alice Goffman ethnographic book and the Raj Chetty et al. analysis of confidential IRS data. These were big news events, but whether they were peer reviewed or not was irrelevant because the peer reviewers had no way to know if the studies were right. My conclusion is that sharing research is the right thing to do, and sharing it with as much supporting material as you can is the responsible way to do it.
The second concern is over the fact that I posted it while it was being considered for inclusion in the Population Association of America meetings. This is similar to posting a paper that is under review at a journal. Conference papers are not reviewed blind, however, so it’s not a problem of disclosing my identity, but maybe generating public pressure on the conference organizers to accept the paper. This happens in many forms with all kinds of open science. I think we need to see hiding research as a very costly choice, one that needs to be carefully justified — rather than the reverse. Putting this in the open is the best way to approach accountability. Now the work of the conference organizers, whose names are listed in the call for papers, can be judged fairly. And my behavior toward the organizers if they reject it can also be scrutinized and criticized.
Although I would love to have the paper in the conference, in this case I don’t need this paper to be accepted by PAA, as it has already gotten way more attention than I ever expected. PAA organizers have a tough job and often have to reject a lot of papers for reasons of thematic fit as well as quality. I won’t complain or hold any grudges if it gets rejected. There’s a lot of really good demography out there, and this paper is pretty rudimentary.
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%.
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.
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.
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.)
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).
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.
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:
These visualizations use decennial census data from 1900 to 1990, and then American Community Survey data for 2001, 2010, and 2016; all data from IPUMS.org. (I didn’t use the 2000 Census because marital status is messed up in that data, with a lot of people who should be never married coded as married, spouse absent; 2001 ACS gets it done.)
An important, simple way of illustrating the myth-making around the 1950s is with marriage age. Contrary to the myth that the 1950s was “traditional,” a long data series show the period to be unique. The two trends here, teen marriage and divorce, both show the modernization of family life, with increasing individual self-determination and less restricted family choices for women.
First, I show the proportion of teenage women married in each state, for each decade from 1900 to 2016. The measure I used for this is the proportion of 19- and 20-year-olds who have ever been married (that is, including those married, divorced, and widowed). It’s impossible to tell exactly how many people were married before their 20th birthday, which would be a technical definition of teen marriage, but the average of 19 and 20 should do it, since it includes some people are on the first day of their 19th year, and some people are on the last day of their 20th, for an average close to exact age 20.
I start with a small multiple graph of the trend on this measure in every state (click all figures to enlarge). Here the states are ordered by the level of teen marriage in 2016, from Maine lowest (<1%) to Utah (14%):
This is useful for seeing that the basic pattern is universal: starting the century lower and rising to a peak in 1960, then declining steeply to the present. But that similarity, and smaller range in the latest data, make it hard to see the large relative differences across states now. Here are the 2016 levels, showing those disparities clearly:
Neither the small multiples nor the bars help you see the regional patterns and variations. So here’s an animated map that shows both the scale of change and the pattern of variation.
This makes clear the stark South/non-South divide, and how the Northeast led the decline in early marriage. Also, you can see that Utah, which is such a standout now, did not have historically high teen marriage levels, the state just hasn’t matched the decline seen nationally. Their premodernism emerged only in relief.
Here I again used a prevalence measure. This is just the number of people whose marital status is divorced, divided by the number of married people (including separated and divorced). It’s a little better than just the percentage divorced in the population, because it’s at least scaled by marriage prevalence. But it doesn’t count divorces happening, and it doesn’t count people who divorced and then remarried (so it will under-represent divorce to the extent that people remarry). Also, if divorced people die younger than married people, it could be messed up at older ages. Anyway, it’s the best thing I could think of for divorce rates by state all the way back to 1900.
So, here’s the small multiple graph, showing the trend in divorce prevalence for all states from 1900 to 2016:
That looks like impressive uniformity: gradual increase until 1970, then a steep upward turn to the present. These are again ordered by the 2016 value, from Utah at less than 20% to New Mexico at more than 30% — smaller variation than we saw in teen marriage. That steep increase looks dramatic in the animated map, which also reveals the regional patterns:
The strategy for both trends is to download microdata samples from all years, then collapse the files down to state averages by decade. The linear figures are Stata scatter plots by state. The animated maps use maptile in Stata (by Michael Stepner) to make separate image files for each map, which I then imported into Photoshop to make the animations (following this tutorial).
The downloaded data, codebooks, Stata code, and images, are all available in an Open Science Framework project here. Feel free to adapt and use. Happy to hear suggestions and alternative techniques in the comments.