Marriage Obsolete?

Pew Study: Americans marrying less, young adults redefining families

November 18, 2010, 12:25 PM

Nov. 18, 2010 — -- Not only are more marriages on the rocks these days, so is marriage itself, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center.

A survey of 2,691 Americans done in association with Time magazine found that nearly four in 10 Americans think marriage is becoming obsolete. That's an 11 percent spike since 1978, when Time asked the same question.

"Marriage is still very important in this country, but it doesn't dominate family life like it used to," Andrew Cherlin, a professor of sociology and public policy at John Hopkins University, told the Associated Press.

Younger people are leading the way in redefining what marriage means. Forty-four percent of those between the ages of 18 and 29 saw marriage as obsolete, compared to 32 percent of those 65 and older.

Other groups more likely to see marriage as a fading institution included blacks, at 44 percent, those with a high school diploma or less, at 44 percent, and people who made $30,000 or less a year, at 48 percent.

Census data have shown that younger people are marrying less and less, and when they marry, they're generally older.

The median age of when one first gets married is at its highest point ever. For women, it's 26.1 years of age, and for men, it's 28.2.

On top of that, for the first time in half a century, the number of unmarried people between the ages of 25 and 34 outnumbers the number of married people in the same age range.

Experts say that young adults between 18 and 29 are more likely to have an unmarried or divorced parent, and that's made a difference in how they view marriage.

Young people are marrying less often, in part, because they're taking marriage more seriously after watching their own parents divorce or separate from one another.

Families Redefined

The Pew survey also showed the quiet revolution of the American family over the last 30 years. Americans increasingly think marriage, once a central way of defining what constitutes a family, is no longer as important in that regard.

One reason is the increasing number of people living together and having children without getting married.

About 29 percent of children under 18 now live with a parent or parents who either are divorced or never married. Broken down further, six percent of those kids have parents who are live-in couples who never got married.

Of the respondents, 86 percent said a single parent and child constitute a family; 80 percent said an unmarried couple living together with a child is a family; and 63 percent said same-sex couples raising a child is a family.

The presence of children continues to have a strong impact on determining what makes a family. The majority of those surveyed said that an unmarried couple living together is not a family.

"People are rethinking what family means," Cherlin said. "Given the growth, I think we need to accept cohabitation relationships as a basis for some of the fringe benefits offered to families, such as health insurance."

The Census Bureau plans to redefine what it considers a family when measuring poverty because of the growing number of unmarried couples raising children.

When people do get married, historians say that Americans no longer are getting married for the same reason Ozzie and Harriet did.

For centuries, economic security was the reason to say I do. Marriage thrived as a practical way to divide labor, allocate resources, have children and arrange for someone to take care of you when you got old.

Now, people's desire to be happy trumps society's more "old-fashioned" interest in stability.

When asked why they tied the knot, 93 percent of respondents said love, 87 percent said making a lifelong commitment, 81 percent said companionship, 59 percent said having children and all the way at the bottom of the list was financial stability, at 31 percent.

Will a social institution built on love have the same longevity as one built on economic security?

Back in 1960, 72 percent of all adults in this country were married. Now, that number hovers at 52 percent.

Not only are more people getting divorced. More people are saying, I don't.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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