Marriage rates have declined steeply in the
It is easier to explain the decline in marriage rates than to assess the significance of the decline for the health of the society. Decline in infant mortality and increase in job opportunities for women (and hence increased opportunity cost of motherhood) have reduced the demand for children and thereby raised the average age of marriage, which leads to a reduced number of marriages. And women, being abler to support themselves than in the past, are more picky about marriage, and that reduces the marriage rate. Moreover, with many more women working in the market than only in the household, the gains from specialization in marriage have fallen. In addition, both sexes have greater access to sex outside of marriage; marrying for sex is becoming a thing of the past as taboos against extramarital sex disappear. And legal changes have reduced the difference between marriage and close substitutes like cohabitation: no longer are children born out of wedlock subjected to disadvantages associated with “illegitimacy,” such as being denied rights of inheritance; and no-fault divorce has lowered the cost of divorce.
In a pluralistic society, widespread practices tend to become normative. The more unmarried people there are, the more the unmarried state seems normal. Between 1930 and 1990, the percentage of
There is considerable evidence that married people are happier and healthier than unmarried, but the direction of causation is unclear. Happier and healthier people are more desirable as marriage partners and also better able to cope with the strains that are inevitable in a close relationship with another person to whom one is not related. The American population has over time become healthier and even somewhat happier, yet these trends have not reversed the decline in the marriage rate.
Will the marriage rate go all the way to zero, or close to it, and be replaced by a pure contractual regime (the triumph of freedom of contract)? I think not. The reason is that even in an era of no-fault divorce and a high divorce rate, marriage signifies commitment in a way that no other adult relationship does—if only because marrying couples greatly exaggerate the likelihood of never divorcing. Partly because of the exaggerated expectations that people bring to marriage, it is socially and emotionally much more difficult to terminate a marriage than a cohabitation (euphemistically but imprecisely termed nowadays a “committed relationship”). And it is difficult to imagine satisfactory contractual substitutes--which would have to define marital obligations and their satisfactory performance and specify sanctions for breach--that would create a comparable commitment. So as long there is a demand for a a really committed relationship, although the commitment cannot be nearly as strong as when divorce was difficult or even forbidden altogether (but when short life spans sharply limited the duration of most marriages), one can expect marriage to persist.
This is provided that commitment yields substantial expected benefits. It does, as is most easily seen in a culture in which divorce is strongly disapproved or even forbidden (or remarriage forbidden). For then each spouse has a strong incentive to invest in the marriage, as when the wife takes time off from work to have children and provide extensive child care and the husband invests in the children by providing material support. When children are born out of wedlock, the entire burden of child care is likely to fall on the mother, to the detriment of the children.
A puzzle is why the marriage rate of college-educated women, which used to be substantially lower than that of other women, has risen, though it remains slightly lower than theirs. One might think that educated women's demand for marriage would fall as the labor-market demand for educated women rose. But at the same time their better income prospects attract men. Also, the general rise in the age of marriage reduces the relative effect of education on age of marriage (women—men also—tend to postpone marriage until they complete their education). There may also be an investment motive. With increased returns to education and fewer children per family, educated people are motivated and able to invest in their children’s upbringing and schooling more than the uneducated have either the resources or felt need to do. Men seek out intelligent women (and vice versa) as marriage partners in the hope of having children who will be more educable and successful.