Record share of Americans are unmarried – even though most want to say ‘I do’

Among Americans ages 25 to 34, 49 percent have never been married, according to census data compiled by Pew. The result can be greater financial challenges, economists say.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science
Bride and groom Emily and Joey Schonlau pose for photos in front of the Sacred Heart Church immediately after their ceremony, in 2009.

For Americans ages 25 to 34, the likelihood of being unmarried is four times greater today than it was in 1960 – a trend that is reshaping the economics of household life.

It’s not that the younger generations have lost all interest in marriage. But the actual prevalence of marriage has declined, reaching a record low according to a new survey.

The result, economists say, is greater financial challenges for households including unmarried couples and single parents with children.

Here are the latest numbers:

Some 1 in 5 adults over 24 has never been married, according to 2012 Census data compiled by the Pew Research Center. And if you narrow the focus to ages 25 to 34, fully 49 percent have never been married, a figure that stood at 12 percent in 1960.

In part, many Americans see a positive side to the longstanding trend of decline in marriage. The social stigmatization of being single or in a cohabiting relationship has greatly eased.

But the financial toll of less marriage, and later marriage, is significant, economists say – ranging from lower living standards to diminished opportunities for children.

“Married people are happier, healthier, and wealthier than their unmarried counterparts – even after adjusting for some obvious differences between the two groups,” writes Brookings Institution scholar Isabel Sawhill in a new book, “Generation Unbound.”

The consequences of the decline in marriage for children are even more important, Ms. Sawhill argues. Not only are 40 percent of US births today happening outside marriage, but most of those are also unplanned, she says – circumstances that are “too frequently accompanied by a less-than-favorable environment for the child.”

Brighter prospects for individual households would help the whole economy, too, affecting things like taxpayer costs for antipoverty programs and remedial support at schools.

What’s the answer to these economic challenges?

Improving the marriage rate is a possibility. Polling by the Pew Research Center found that young adults generally still aspire to marriage. Only 4 percent of never-married adults ages 25 to 34 say they don’t want to get married, the center reported Wednesday.

One stumbling block lately has been a weakened job market. Among that younger age group, there are 91 employed men for every 100 women, whereas in 1960 that ratio was 139 employed men per 100 women, according to Pew.

So strengthening overall job creation and job training could help improve the pace of “I do” vows – even as it boosts the economy more broadly for others.

It’s possible, too, that targeted marriage-promotion efforts, perhaps led by churches and other civic institutions, could help revive marriage rates over the long term.

Whatever happens, Sawhill takes it as a given that rates of childbirth outside marriage will be higher than in the past. With that in view, she argues for a parallel focus on supporting successful parenthood – whatever the marital status of the parents – such as by promoting low-maintenance forms of birth control that have proved effective at reducing unwanted pregnancies.

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