The March 9, 2020 Wall Street Journal’s front page described marriage as a new form of “luxury good.” According to the Journal since 1980 the middle 40% of U.S. workers have seen the sharpest decline in the number of people who are married. These are households reporting income ranging from $25,000 to $125,000 per annum.
The preference of this large swath of America’s middle class is to simply live together avoiding any formal arrangement. The reasons given by those asked relates to economic uncertainty. A 2019 survey by Pew Research Center found that many of couples replied that they were not financially ready for a marriage commitment. Ironically, the interest in marriage remains unabated. The University of Michigan has tracked that statistic since 1976 and it has remained a relatively constant; 75% of high school seniors still believe they will marry. But, where marriage was seen as a reliable support to creating economic well-being 45 years ago, it seems to be regarded as perilous today.
In 1980, about 2/3rds of middle income earners were married. Today that number is closer to 50%. Curiously, the higher one looks on the economic ladder the more likely are those surveyed to be married. This is not to suggest that people are not living together. In fact, for the period 2013-2017 a national survey of family growth found that among people ages 18-44 almost 60% have tried living in a non-marital relationship. Several studies reported in the Journal suggest that a major factor restraining marriage is job insecurity on the part of young adult males. This is borne out by data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics data on civilian labor force participation rates. In 2001, a recession year, the national rate was 67%. Today despite steady economic growth and reported “full employment ” only 63.4% of American adults are either working or actively seeking employment. A leading cause for this problem may be job insecurity. In industrial towns like Decatur, Illinois manufacturing jobs have declined by 40% since 2000. The rate of marriage in that town has declined by 17%.
Another factor which appears to be in play is “divorce anxiety.” Many people in the 18-44 age range have witnessed firsthand the experience of watching their families dissolve, either as children or in their own early relationships. The stress and financial complexity of dissolving a marriage is itself considered a reason to avoid marriage. As one person interviewed put it: “I feel my needs are met” by a live in relationship without benefit of marriage.
Pennsylvania statistics appear consistent with this trend. In 1973 more than 50,000 couples “tied the knot” in the Commonwealth. That number held above 45,000 through 1985 but then steadily declined to 34,000 in 2011. Since then, there has been a rise 37,000 couples but bear in mind that beginning in 2015 the law changed to allow gay couples to marry, thereby elevating the pool of persons eligible to marry.