San Jose Mercury News

Published Friday, July 2, 1999, in the San Jose Mercury News

Study: Marriage rate is at its lowest ever

Findings are proof of changing attitudes, report's authors say

BY MICHAEL A. FLETCHER
Washington Post

WASHINGTON -- Americans are less likely to marry than ever before, according to a new study, and fewer people who do marry report being ``very happy'' in their marriages.

The report, released Thursday by Rutgers University's National Marriage Project and touted as a benchmark compilation of statistics and surveys, found that the nation's marriage rate has dipped by 43 percent in the past four decades -- from 87.5 marriages per 1,000 unmarried women in 1960 to 49.7 marriages in 1996 -- leaving it at its lowest point in recorded history.

The percentage of married people who reported being ``very happy'' in their marriages fell from 53.5 in 1973-76 to 37.8 in 1996.

This historically low marriage rate, coupled with soaring divorce rates, has dramatically altered attitudes toward one of society's most fundamental institutions. While Americans still cherish the ideal of marriage, increasing numbers of young adults, particularly young women, are pessimistic about finding a lasting marriage partner and are far more accepting than in the past of alternatives to marriage, including single parenthood and living together with a partner outside of marriage, according to the report.

``Young people today want successful marriages, but they are increasingly anxious and pessimistic about their chances for achieving that goal,'' said Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, co-director of the project.

Marriage an overlooked area

Funded by Rutgers University in conjunction with several private foundations, the National Marriage Project is a research institute that tracks social indicators related to marriage -- an area of study its directors contend is frequently overlooked.

``Nobody is focusing on marriage,'' said David Popenoe, the project's other co-director. ``It is not in the national debate.''

Rather than directly examining Americans' attitudes toward marriage, researchers have tended to focus on the flip side of the coin, tracking social trends such as the increases in divorce, out-of-wedlock births and single-parent households over the past two decades. In the post-World War II generation, 80 percent of children grew up in a family with two biological parents. Now that number has dipped to 60 percent.

Before declining slightly in recent years, divorce rates had soared more than 30 percent since 1970. Today nearly half of American marriages are projected to end in divorce or permanent separation.

These changes have ignited a national grass-roots movement to discourage divorce and promote marriage. Many states are re-examining their no-fault divorce laws, and at least two states, Louisiana and Arizona, have instituted covenant marriages, which require counseling if a marriage falters and narrowly restrict grounds for divorce.

Last year in Florida, legislators passed a law requiring marriage education skills to be taught in high schools. In addition, adults preparing for marriage in Florida receive a substantial discount on their marriage licenses if they choose to take a marriage education course.

The National Marriage Project report attributes the declining marriage rate to people postponing marriage until later in life and to more couples deciding to live together outside of marriage. According to the report, nearly half of people between ages 25 and 40 at some point have lived with a member of the opposite sex outside of marriage.

Changing as rite of passage

As a result, the report's authors argued, marriage is no longer the presumed route from adolescence to adulthood and has lost much of its significance as a rite of passage. Moreover, marriage is far less likely to be associated with first sexual experiences, particularly for women, the report said. While 90 percent of women born between 1933 and 1942 were either virgins when they married or had premarital sex only with their eventual husbands, now over half of teenage girls have sexual intercourse by age 17.

These changes in marriage patterns have contributed to new attitudes toward the institution. While the percentage of teens who said that having a good marriage and family life was ``extremely important'' has increased modestly in the past two decades, the percentage who said they expected to stay married to the same person for life has decreased slightly. More dramatically, the percentage of teen girls who said having a child out of wedlock is a ``worthwhile lifestyle'' grew from 33 percent to 53 percent in the past two decades.

While the report's findings led its authors to conclude that ``the institution of marriage is in serious trouble,'' other researchers who track marriage trends said there was reason for optimism. For one, they note that demographers predict that 85 percent of young people will marry at some point in their lifetimes, a substantial figure, even though it is smaller than the 94 percent in 1960.


©1999 Mercury Center.