The Monitor's View

America's rash retreat from marriage

In a nation soon to be dominated by single adults, more Americans find marriage obsolete or worth putting off. But can a society afford to have so many people unwilling to make a self-sacrifice to another in a bond that drives civilization?

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    U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Brandon Parnell looks on as his fiance Kim Havner tries on a wedding dress during "Operation Wedding Gown" at Poffie Girls in Gastonia, N.C., on Nov. 20. In partnership with the national charitable organization Brides Across America, Poffie Girls bridal boutique donated 43 wedding dresses to brides in the military or who were marrying men serving in the military.



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Marriage in America will soon cross a threshold.

The latest data show that unwed adults now almost outnumber those who are wed. Within a few years, the majority of adults over 18 will be single.

That would be a historic first, which is all the more startling because of what French writer Alexis de Tocqueville observed in the 19th century: “There is certainly no country in the world where the tie of marriage is more respected than in America or where conjugal happiness is more highly or worthily appreciated.”

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Many Americans today are in fast retreat from matrimony – and the cause is not divorce, which has leveled off in recent decades. Rather, recent census data analyzed by the Pew Research Center reveal these dramatic trends:

The median age for marriage is now at its highest level as more young people put off tying the knot or cohabiting instead. And last year, only 9 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds were married, a big drop from 45 percent a half century ago.

The falloff for that age group has been swift. The number who had recently married slumped by 13 percent in just one year, from  2009 to 2010.

Surprisingly, the research doesn’t show that the Great Recession is the cause. Rather, a values revolution is driving many people away from making that special self-sacrifice to a spouse and from cherishing marriage as a social good with economic security that can leave behind a better generation.

The revolution is reflected in these stats: About 4 of 10 people under 30 now consider marriage to be passé or obsolete. And as a result, the share of adults who married over the past decade fell from 57 percent to a threshold-breaking 51 percent.

To be sure, a majority of singles still would like to be hitched – especially among those between the ages of 36 and 45 – but for many reasons they just aren’t.

Children of divorce are often afraid to tie the knot. Others put careers and education first. And with less social obligation to marry these days, finding Mr. or Ms. Right seems less urgent.

These trends are worse among the less educated, blacks, and Hispanics. For them, this “marriage gap” causes many to lose out on the economic benefits of marriage. College-educated whites, meanwhile, still largely embrace marriage, allowing most to hang onto the American dream.

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Marriage, of course, isn’t for everybody. But its decline signals a troublesome shift away from the enduring spiritual values of self-denial for the sake of others, best expressed in marriage and, with it, parenthood.

It is not only individuals who lose the opportunity to learn the happiness of finding one’s good in another, but society loses out as well.

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