Why marriage rates keep falling


There’s a great article in the NY Times about the changing relationship between money and marriage. According to the author, Claire Cain Miller, “marriage has gone from being a way that people pulled their lives together to something they agree to once they have already done that independently.”

Marriage rates are dropping, especially among young adults. Currently 20 percent of adults older than 25 have never been married, versus approximately 11 percent in 1960. The percent of never married young adults has risen every generation.

A large reason for this decline: money.

As Miller points out, marriage was – for a very long time – an economic strategy as much as anything. A couple came together just as they were starting out and built careers, a household, and their financial stability together.

But now individuals feel compelled to create their own financial stability before getting married. According to a poll conducted by Pew Research, of those young adults who have never married, but plan to do so someday, more than a quarter have delayed marriage because they didn’t feel they were financially prepared.

And the overall economy isn’t helping things. Even though cultural attitudes towards the idea of traditional male/female roles within the household have changed, 78 percent of never married women say that finding a partner who is financially secure is very important to them; making that trait the most important factor in their search for a prospective mate.

In an unstable economy, it makes sense that this population would highly value financial security. Safety and security are basic human needs. But unfortunately the reality is that such a requirement does appear to have an effect on declining marriage rates. For every 100 unmarried women, there are only 65 unmarried men with steady jobs. If we need financial security before we’re willing to get married, unfortunately, the present economy isn’t doing marriage any favors.

What does this mean?

You could probably make a number of arguments about what this falling marriage rate really means, but it’s probably safest to simply say that it isn’t a positive trend; if – for nothing else – because it means that our personal economic situation is playing an increasingly aggressive role in how we live our lives. In other words, it’s beginning to feel like money is dictating a lot of major choices for us.

And what can we do about that? There’s no single solution and there’s certainly no magic bullet, so to speak, but there are two “big picture” options that spring to mind.

Change the way we think about money. Without trying to analyze exactly how we got here, it’s obvious that our general attitudes towards money have changed over the years. When it comes to marriage, at least, having established yourself financially is more important now than ever, despite (or maybe because of) the fact that establishing yourself financially has become increasingly difficult. Maybe it’s a matter of being more willing to take risks. Maybe we should strive to be less afraid of uncertainty. Whatever form the actual change takes, it seems vital that we not let money be the ruling factor in our lives.

Remove the scariness from money. As Andrew Smith once famously stated, “People fear what they do not understand.” Because money does seem to be so central to everything these days, it’s easy to see why money itself would feel so scary. But rather than placing such an enormous emphasis on young adults having it all figured out before they can move forward in their personal lives, maybe there’s more value in simply understanding personal finance first. Instead of saying I need to have X job, with X in savings, and a credit rating of X before I can make a commitment to someone, let’s make sure young adults have the necessary knowledge to pick goals that matter to them, and then reach those goals, on their own terms.

It’s clear that money has always played a role in personal relationships. Ultimately, it’s up to each of us individually to decide what kind of a role that will be.

Jesse Campbell photo.

Jesse Campbell is the Content Manager at MMI, with over ten years of experience creating valuable educational materials that help families through everyday and extraordinary financial challenges.

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