Untying the knot: Is marriage becoming obsolete?

Whenever I talk to parents of 20-somethings, all I ever hear is “Don’t rush them into marriage; they’re too young.” In 1960, two-thirds of young people in their 20s were married. Today, it’s less than one-third. According to the Census Bureau, the median age at first marriage in 2010 is 28.2 for men and 26.1 for women. This is a continuation of a long-term trend that has been noted since the mid-1950s. If we keep this up, retirement homes may be the hottest place to find a mate!  

Not only are people waiting until later to marry, many Americans are not marrying at all. In 1960, nearly 70 percent of American adults were married; now only about half are. Eight times as many children are born out of wedlock than in the 1960s. 

Why is marriage on the ropes? According to a study just released by the Pew Research Center in association with TIME,  the answer is simple: Marriage—whatever its social, spiritual or symbolic appeal—is just not as necessary as it used to be. With more women working outside of the home and with less social stigma surrounding non-traditional families (including single motherhood, cohabitating couples and same-sex families) fewer people find it imperative to tie the knot.

What is interesting about the new study is that marriage is increasingly becoming class-based. Although the marriage rate is declining among all groups, it’s still the norm for college-educated adults, and those with higher incomes. In 1960 the median household income of married adults was 12 percent higher than that of single adults, after adjusting for household size. By 2008 this gap had grown to 41 percent.

“In other words, the richer and more educated you are, the more likely you are to marry, or to be married — or, conversely, if you’re married, you’re more likely to be well off,” the researchers concluded.

So, is marriage doomed to go the way of dowries and hope chests? In 1978, the divorce rate was much higher than it is today. Back then, TIME asked registered voters if they thought that marriage was obsolete—nearly three in 10 said “yes.” Today, it’s up to four in 10.

Despite the fading faith in the institution, Americans remain more upbeat about the future of marriage and family (67 percent say they are optimistic). That ranks higher than the future of the country’s educational system (50 percent are optimistic), the economy (46 percent are optimistic) or the nation’s morals and ethics (41 percent are optimistic).

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