A Gallup Poll on views of marriage in the U.S. released this week suggests that attitudes about the importance of marriage are shifting as more and more young Americans are waiting to marry. Young Americans are the most likely not to want to marry, although the most common reason cited for remaining unmarried is having "not yet found the right person." Overall, the findings indicate that the perceived importance of adhering to the tradition of marriage may be weakening.
Gallup's findings are in line with a striking decline in the U.S. marriage rate that has been identified in America in recent years. The U.S. Census Bureau released findings last year that the marriage rate has been in major decline, from 9.9 marriages per 1,000 Americans in 1987 to 6.8 in 2011. Researchers at the University of Maryland found that the marriage rate has dropped from 90 per 1,000 unmarried women to just 31 in 2011, leaving some fearful that faith in the institution of marriage in America may be well on its way to disappearing.
In light of these shifts, reports have begun to circulate that marriage is becoming "obsolete." The soaring divorce rate and the ideal of marrying "for love" rather than for practical reasons of stability are some reasons onlookers perceived a major shift in attitudes was occurring among younger Americans. Declining marriage rates have also corresponded with a declining birthrate in America, as women are delaying having children and having fewer of them, setting record lows in recent years and adding to the fear that the American family is on the "decline."
But one reason Gallup's newest poll provides particularly illuminating new insights on the matter is that its findings show much more complexity on attitudes towards marriage than most other reports on the issue have identified. That is, while a noticeable group of younger Americans indicate a lack of desire to marry, poll respondents remain, overall, more positive about marriage than not, and the majority of every group polled still indicate that they wish to marry some day.
Nine percent of 18-34 year olds polled indicate that they have "never married and do not wish to get married," while the remainder of those polled say they are currently married, or wish to get married one day, but "have not found the right person," are "too young/not ready," or worry about "money/financial reasons." Older Americans aged 35-54 and 55+ compare dramatically on this question, as only 3-4% of them indicate that they do not wish to get married in the future.
Young Americans without a college degree and those with lower incomes are less likely to be married than those Americans who are more educated and more wealthy. But while non-white Americans aged 18-34 group are significantly less likely than whites of the same age to be married, their attitudes about marriage are somewhat equivalent, as both ethnicities polled in this age group indicate a strong (approximately 80%) desire to be married one day.
The idea that marriage is particularly important when a couple plans to spend the rest of their lives together or when a couple has a child together is also shifting. While most Americans tend to find these reasons compelling motivations for marriage, younger Americans are significantly less likely than older ones to believe people should marry for reasons of lifetime commitment or when having a child.
These findings mirror recent Pew reports, which have indicated that marriage has been, overall, shifting to an institution based on reasons of love (cited as a primary reason by 93% of those polled) and companionship (81%), rather than reasons of convenience or stability (31%).
Gallup summed up its findings by insisting that overall, "the data suggest that marriage holds its traditional status as the expected route for young couples, but the perceived importance of adhering to that tradition may be weakening." They claim that despite shifting attitudes, there remains a "significant desire for marriage," even though the overall marriage rate has been in decline.
As marriage has come to the forefront of the national debate, it is worthwhile to take a step back and examine attitudes towards the institution altogether. Few organizations have offered comprehensive data on these measures over time, and it can be difficult to trace just how significantly attitudes about marriage are truly shifting. But the differences between attitudes of younger Americans and their older counterparts are striking in this newest report. These generational divides suggest that interest in marriage may be, overall, on the decline in the U.S., and the social, political, and economic implications of these shifts over time will be worth tracking in order to better understand the future of the American family in the years ahead.