Po Bronson: "If we're going to have families in this modern age, we'll do it when we're good and ready"

October 19th, 2006

Has Being Married Gone Out of Style?
Blame how much money we have, not our lack of values, for the decline in married households
By Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman

Earlier this month, the Census Bureau informed us that married households are no longer the majority in America. Homes headed by married couples have dipped below 50% for the first time. But while this barometer certainly indicates a sea change in how we live, the nature of the phenomenon is generally misunderstood.

The primary factor getting the blame is the preference of young people to cohabitate rather than marry. There are almost 37 million “unmarried, non-family households” in America. Many assume this means couples living in sin, but a huge proportion of these (83%) are actually roommates, not romantically involved at all (or at least not usually). By and large, they're twenty-somethings who are living with their friends while they hope to find the right partner to marry. Couples do indeed cohabitate before marriage – over 85% of recently married couples lived together first – but most get around to marrying. In fact, over 90% of us will marry at some point in our lives.

This distinction – that we still marry, but do so at a more mature age than we used to – is commonly called “The Marriage Delay.” Delay, however, is a bad choice of words, because it implies that we fear commitment and try to sow our oats as long as possible before conceding that it's time to grow up and settle down. Delay suggests that women procrastinate on marriage offers, pushing away suitors, hoping Prince Charming will show up next year with the glass slipper.

These are the stereotypes that fill our movies and television screens, but they miss something important: Young people don't delay marriage; they get married when they can marry because they just have so much more to do before they consider themselves ready to marry.

Fifty years ago, after all, a woman didn't need to attend college or have a career before marrying, and she didn't need to “live on her own” to get to know herself. Today, a young woman needs to graduate college, perhaps get some grad school, and try a few jobs before she finds the profession that fits her. Once she has established her own merits – her own self-worth – she's ready to shop for a husband; she might be 30 by then. Did she delay marriage? Hardly. She was racing through society's hurdles as fast as she could.

The divorce rate is assumed to be another main factor for so many unmarried households. But the divorce rate has not gone up in twenty years; in fact, it's been fairly stable at around 42 percent. Divorce did lead to a boom in single-parent households during the 1970s and 1980s, but that doesn't explain what has happened since then. Also keep in mind that getting divorced doesn't mean you are divorced-forever-after; about two-thirds of those who divorce will remarry, jumping back to the “married household” side of the white picket fence.

The most overlooked factor in the decline of married households is the contribution our elderly make to this trend. We used to keep our grandparents at home, in the spare room, but now they prefer the weather in Florida and the 24-hour care of retirement homes. When one elderly spouse outlives the other, America gets another “single-person household.” There are now 10.5 million people, over age 65, living alone – one-tenth of all households. Thus, the 55 million married households become a smaller part of the whole pie.

What we're really seeing in all these numbers is that America still loves family – we just don't want to live under the same roof. We have the financial resources to live apart, and in fact money is the driving factor behind all of these choices. Moving to Florida is expensive; so is living in a nursing home. We do it because we can afford to. Divorce is also expensive – it's a decision to maintain two households, rather than one. Women have their own careers and their own source of income – so they can afford to leave crappy marriages. In the same way, our 20-somethings can live with roommates rather than at home because their jobs pay them enough to do so; they don't have to live with Mom and Dad. This financial emancipation has lead to a dispersion of family into separate households, allowing us to be close when we want (like at Thanksgiving), or put some distance between us when we want.

The new era of family is not defined by “not marrying.” The true defining traits of this new era are financial freedom and choice. In the 1970s, only 5% of households were a person living alone. Today, 27% are. We have options now. So if we're going to have families in this modern age, we'll do it when we're good and ready.

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