In America in 2017, the culture of marriage and marital families is struggling. Such disintegration in the social status and respect accorded to marriage is a harbinger of future difficulties for America – and for American children in particular.
For example, Census Bureau data shows that since 1960, the overall percentage of American men who are married has declined from 70 percent to 55 percent. Certainly, increased rates of divorce account for some of the decline, but the percentage of divorced men in 2016 was almost the same as it was in 1990 (under 10 percent). Moreover, the percentage of American men who have never married has risen from 30 percent in 1990 to over 35 percnet in 2016. The data on American women during the same period shows very similar patterns.
The median age at first marriage for American men and women also has skyrocketed since about 1975 when it was about age 23 for men and 21 years for women. By 2016, the median age at first marriage was almost 30 years of age for men, and almost 28 years for women. Both men and women are postponing marriage.
That represents a dramatic change. For nearly a century, from 1890 to about 1990, the median age at first marriage had remained relatively stable at between 23-26 years for American men, and 20-22 years for American women. Since 1990, in just a quarter-century, the median ages at first marriage have risen nearly four years for both men and women. Thus, the median marriage age has risen much more for both men and women in the past quarter-century than in nearly the entire prior century. Clearly, contemporary American young adults are postponing and delaying marriage in almost unprecedented numbers and rates.
Today, in many contemporary societies and subcultures, marriage is considered by many to be merely one of many equally valid, equally legitimate, equally desirable lifestyle options. In some subcultures, marriage has gone from having a status of high respect to being a less desirable or undesirable condition (due to loss of independence and the burdens of service that come with the marital duty of meeting the needs of others, such as spouse and children).
In many ways, it seems that marriage is losing social status, and popular respect for marriage seems to be dwindling in America. For many persons, marriage has gone from being considered a marker of maturity, responsibility, and a respectable status to being a burdensome condition to be avoided for as long as possible.
As the status of marriage declines, the number and rates of marriages drop, the timing of marriages is delayed, and the rate of non-marital births and childrearing rises. Over time, that results in more children being born and raised in the more difficult, disadvantaged circumstances outside of marital families. That also results in more unstable adult intimate relationships, more domestic violence, more personal distress for adults, and (especially) more suffering for children.
By unduly delaying marriage and engaging in sexual relations out of marriage, the burdens and impediments of non-marital sexual relations and childrearing are passed on to the next generation. Our children and grandchildren and on for three or four generations carry the stigma and the disadvantages bequeathed to them by parents and ancestors who avoided marriage.
Of course, the United States is not alone in this plight. Many other affluent, liberal-democratic nations are experiencing a crisis in the declining status, strength, reputation and integrity of marriage and marital families. Nonmarital sexual relations, nonmarital cohabitation, and nonmarital childbearing are increasing significantly as the results of postponed marriage.
Sadly, research confirms that the deterioration of the social status and desirability of marriage and marital family life are harbingers of future problems and distress for individuals (especially for children), as well as of chaos for families and societies. It behooves the current generations of American adults to identify strategies and initiate palliative actions which might revive and restore a culture of marriage in contemporary American society. We can only rebuild a family-friendly nation by making marriage great again!
Lynn D. Wardle is the Bruce C. Hafen Professor of Law at Brigham Young University. He is author or editor of numerous books and law review articles mostly about family, biomedical ethics and conflict of laws policy issues. His publications present only his personal (not institutional) views.