Why Unmarried Americans Outnumber Married Americans

It is purely coincidental that this is my second consecutive marriage related post. I wrote the previous one on the wedding culture, and generally lost interest in the topic until it was brought to my attention that the latest numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that this is the first time (since they started tracking these things in 1976) that unmarried adults now outnumber married ones. It was this summer that the percentage of unmarried Americans above the age of 16 hit the 50.2% mark. This is up from 37.4% in 1976.

Being an unmarried American, these numbers were not completely surprising for me. I even wrote a piece, questioning whether there were any real tangible benefits to marriage besides the government granted ones. I argued that absent the numerous government granted benefits to marriage, the institution may become less attractive to growing numbers of people. Apparently, we have now reach a time that even with the government benefits people are still choosing not to get married in record numbers.

This is not to say that these unmarried Americans are not entering relationships, living together or having children. Many of them are doing all these things, just without being married. I suspect that this is due in part to the fact that young American adults are generally less traditional and less religious than previous generations were. Even among young people who are religious, marriage does not feel like the religious duty it once did. Further more it is no longer, simply the thing to do the way it was a few generations back. People born since the 1970s grew up being told that they can do whatever they want and be whatever they want, more than any previous generation and for a lot of people in that age range getting married for traditions sake is not high on their priority list.

Additionally, we live in times in which no level of government is particularly popular. In fact some levels such as the two houses of congress are seeing unprecedented levels of unpopularity. Additionally we have heard quite a bit of unsettling information about government spying, drone warfare, and a general disregard among those in the state for the rights and well being of the general population. It is hardly surprising to me that in such a climate many people would wish to forgo having the government officially recognize their status as a couple. To be honest, I have no way of knowing how much of contributing factor this is, but I do not dismiss the possibility that it influenced at least some couples who have opted out of marriage for the time being.

In addition to these cultural issues there are the economic factors, which unfortunately may have the most explanatory power. The economy has been weak for half a decade now, and job security is not a luxury that large numbers of young adults have. With such instability, making any types of long term commitments are out of the question for most people. This is not to mention, how expensive the big traditional American weddings are, as I discussed in greater detail in my previous post. For many people it is simply easier to live together and hold off on the expensive wedding until more prosperous times. Of course for many who have made this choice, the more prosperous times have been slow in coming. This is almost certainly related to another trend, in which people who would like to get married are simply waiting longer periods before doing so. Often this is motivated by a desire to achieve a certain level of financial stability, and security before getting married.

On another note, I have talked to quite a few people for whom the notion of lifelong monogamy is unrealistic of unappealing. This is an attitude that people are becoming increasingly more open and up front about. Simply put, nothing in our biology makes us particularly suited for lifelong monogamy, and this may go a long way to explain why infidelity is as common phenomenon as it is.

This brings us to the  issue of divorce. Since the introduction of the No-fault divorce in the 1970s it has become increasingly easy to get divorced. I favor this, because it means more freedom for the general population, and I am happy that it has allowed people who have been in abusive or simply unhappy relationships to be able to leave and start fresh. However, divorce  is often a nasty and often expensive prospect, even when in relatively straight forward cases . This is made worse by the fact that laws concerning divorce are not always fair to both parties. I suspect that for many people, wishing to avoid being in such a situation it is easier to not get married in the first place.

I am sure there are numerous other reasons less people are getting married, but since I generally find marriage to be a cultural institution with a great deal of baggage that I dislike, I cannot be unhappy to hear people are seeking alternatives. Furthermore I reject the conservative line of reasoning that says everyone should get married and that we would all better off as a result. In fact I cannot say that I am unhappy to hear that many people are simply rejecting this advice. On the other hand, if the drop in marriages is not due to people reexamining their options and more due to necessity caused by economic uncertainty then perhaps I should be a little more cautious in celebrating this development.

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