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What Has Happened to the US Marriage Rate?

Thanks to a report issued by the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University this week, I am seeing lots of news stories reporting that the marriage rate is at its lowest in a century and down almost 60% from 1970.

Whatever could this mean? Mostly, it means our population is growing older and we are marrying older.

The marriage rate and the percentage of women currently married are both based on the total number of women 15 and older. As women marry later (about 7 years later), there are more and more never-married women (and unmarried women with less than a high school diploma or less than a college degree) in our counts who are still quite likely to marry. They have not opted out of marrying, only out of marrying young.

And as the Baby Boomers doing most of the marrying in 1970 neared retirement in 2010, there was an automatic 20% drop in the number of women in their 20s, when most marriages now occur. Because we count all women over 15 when we compute the marriage rate, this creates a large and totally meaningless drop in the marriage rate.

We've had three peaks in the marriage rate since 1890: at the end of World War I, right after World War II, and 1970, when the Boomers hit marrying age, many of them marrying right out of high school.

Since then, it has gone down. In part it went down because it always goes down after a peak. In part it went down because the Boomers remained in the denominator of the fraction even after most had married. In part it went down because more women went to college and established careers before marrying. And in small part it went down for the reasons decried in all the news reports relying on Bowling Green's press release: some have lost faith in the likelihood of their having a successful marriage.

To the extent any of that lost faith results from the choice of words like "declined precipitously," "record lows," and "most dramatic" in reports like this one, I want to beg those making a decision about marriage to read the report more critically than most reporters do. And, as always, I invite you to get some marriage education before you conclude marriage is difficult. Most marriages survive. Most unhappy marriages get better. And a good marriage is an incomparable joy for you and all your children.

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Patty Newbold is a widow who got it right the second time...

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