NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH

The Changing Nature of Marriage and Divorce

"The divorce rate today -- 3.6 divorces per one thousand couples per year -- is at its lowest level since 1970... For marriages that occurred in the 1950s through the 1970s, the figures clearly show that the probability of divorce before each anniversary rose for each successive marriage cohort. For first marriages that occurred in the 1980s, the proportion that had dissolved by each anniversary was consistently lower and it is lower again for marriages that occurred in the 1990s."

Marriage rates are at their lowest in the past century, but divorce is less likely today than it was 30 years ago. Even though the divorce rate was rising in the 1970s, the number of children involved in each divorce has been falling since the late 1960s. Fertility and pregnancy control made possible by "the pill" and legalized abortion may help to explain both the recent decline in divorces and a rise in out-of-wedlock births. These are among the intriguing and often unexpected trends documented in Marriage and Divorce: Changes and Driving Forces (NBER Working Paper No. 12944) in which authors Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers find that it's time to reassess our views of "the American family" given the relatively new and still evolving conditions that now determine whether people marry, stay single, or break-up.

These forces include the aforementioned rise of the birth control pill; higher incomes for women and greater access to education; and new household labor-saving technologies that make it more likely a marriage today will involve people with "similar incomes and interests" as opposed to individuals with clearly defined and distinctly different domestic and wage earning roles. In particular, they argue that marriages can no longer be characterized as having household specialization and children as the central tenet. These changes mean that couples today have different expectations about the benefits of both forming a union and formalizing that union through marriage.

Early in their analysis, Stevenson and Wolfers consider two basic trends in modern marriage and divorce. First, there is the often-cited fact that the marriage rate today is "the lowest in recorded history." But less discussed, they note, is the fact that the divorce rate today -- 3.6 divorces per one thousand couples per year -- is at its lowest level since 1970. This rate is going down even when taking into account that there are fewer marriages. "For marriages that occurred in the 1950s through the 1970s, the figures clearly show that the probability of divorce before each anniversary rose for each successive marriage cohort," they write. "Yet for first marriages that occurred in the 1980s, the proportion that had dissolved by each anniversary was consistently lower and it is lower again for marriages that occurred in the 1990s."

While not pinpointing a single cause for the decline in the divorce rate, Stevenson and Wolfers observe that overall, the married couples of today look quite different from those of a few decades ago. For example, data from 2000 show that marriage today is less prevalent among young adults but more prevalent among older adults, and that people are waiting longer to get married. In the mid-1950s, for example, the median age of men getting married was 23. Today, it's 27. Also, people over 65 are just as likely to be married today as people between 16 and 65.

But while many trends can be documented easily, Stevenson and Wolfers find that figuring out how they affect marriage rates and family composition is a trickier task. Take cohabitation for example. Not surprisingly, their statistics show that today, members of the opposite sex are increasingly likely to be "sharing living quarters." And, cohabitation is more and more the preferred "stepping stone to marriage." Stevenson and Wolfers report that in the early 2000s, 59 percent of married couples had lived together before tying the knot. While couples who cohabit prior to marriage have historically exhibited higher divorce rates, Stevenson and Wolfers observe that there is research showing that pre-marital cohabiting may be more common among those with greater uncertainty about either their compatibility or the benefits of marriage. Thus it may be that divorce-prone couples cohabit, rather than that cohabiting causes divorce. In fact, without cohabitation, divorce may be even more likely, as living together allows couples to "test" their relationship before heading to the altar.

Stevenson and Wolfers encounter another interesting factor when they consider the effect of fertility control on marriage. They note that by removing an unplanned pregnancy from the equation, the birth control pill has allowed women to be more selective about whom they will marry and when they will marry. They cite research reporting that college-educated women who use the pill have a higher age at first marriage, lower divorce rates, and lower marriage rates.

Looking to the future, Stevenson and Wolfers wonder what new forces will emerge to shape marriage and divorce decisions. They point to the dramatic rise in the use of Internet dating services as perhaps the next big factor on the horizon. And again, its effect could be complex. For example, Stevenson and Wolfers observe that the fact that a "tremendous amount" of searches on these sites is being done by those already married could be a "harbinger of rising divorce rates, yet this affect may be ameliorated by improved match quality in the new marriages."

-- Matthew Davis

The Digest is not copyrighted and may be reproduced freely with appropriate attribution of source.
 
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