Waiting to Tie the Knot? Here's What You're Doing to America

Gone are the days when marriage is the next stage after college. Americans are older and more educated at their weddings. While this shift in marriage trends may have little to do with your immediate life, it does highlight some very interesting aspects of our ever-changing culture. From population trends to the value of the marriage “institution,” marriage trends can tell us a lot about our country.

The may be the first PolicyMic article written all year about marriage that doesn’t talk about gay marriage. While there is no doubt a litany of relevant and fascinating conclusions that could be drawn from this topic as it relates to same-sex marriage, the purpose of this article is to examine “traditional” American marriage trends and observe what they say about our society without venturing into the politically volatile chasm of same-sex marriage policy.

An interesting online article looks at the New York Times’ wedding announcement section over the past 33 years to draw conclusions about the shifting trends in marriage in America.  It is important to note at the outset of this analysis that the sample from which this article draws its conclusions is a very particular sample that by no means represents the country as a whole. It is, however, a fascinating look at marriage trends in the U.S. and draws some conclusions which could be translated into larger conclusions about the evolution of American marriage. Most notably, as many already assume, the average age for marriage in the United States has increased from around 23 in 1980 to around 30 in 2013. This relatively dramatic increase implies about a six-to-eight-year gap between college graduation and marriage. This time gap is actually resulting in an increase in postgraduate degrees and higher salaries among first-time married couples. 

This later, more educated, more professionally entrenched population of newlyweds is also choosing to have fewer kids, and to have them later. A recent CNN article noted that the United States' current birthrate is at an all-time low and has been below the replacement rate of 2.1 children/family since 2007. This population reduction can be directly tied to later marriages. While this article notes that the recession, which began in late 2008, has played a huge role in decreasing birth rates, the birth-rate decline began long before the market took a plunge ahead of President Obama’s first electoral victory.

Meanwhile, we can also gain some insights into the value of marriage by looking at what's behind the lack of marriage. Some interesting trends have developed in American society regarding cohabitation, marriage, and divorce. According to the CDC, cohabitation quadrupled in the last 30 years while the percentage of Americans currently in their first marriage has decreased by 20% in the same period. Women without a bachelor's degree or higher are almost 33% more likely to cohabit before marriage than women with higher education. While this increase is noteworthy, it is more remarkable given the “well documented” fact that men and women who cohabit before marriage are more likely to get divorced than couples who wait until marriage to live together. Thus, with cohabitation on the rise, it should be no surprise that divorce is also on the rise in America, particularly among white Americans.

Another CDC report also highlights the interesting reality that marriage is a very solidifying force. Cohabitation before marriage, regardless of whether or not the couple is engaged to be married, produces the aforementioned likelihood of divorce. The divorce rate only drops when couples wait until marriage to cohabit. Why is this the case? I would conjecture that those who wait to cohabit until after marriage place the solemnity and finality of marriage on a higher plane, given their willingness to preserve a very definitive lifestyle change for this union. Whether we're looking at demographics or moral values, marriage can provide very enlightening insights into America’s past, present, and future.