The State of Marriage in America

Nine facts that may surprise you from a new Pew Center/Time magazine poll.

(Image credit: Gilles Mingasson/Getty Image News)

Mr. Sweet Pants sent me an interesting new Time magazine link yesterday, about the state of marriage in the U.S. Nearly 70 percent of American adults were married in 1960. Now only about half are, as Time points out. Back then, two-thirds of 20-somethings were married. In 2008, just 26 percent were. "When an institution so central to human experience suddenly changes shape in the space of a generation or two, it's worth trying to figure out why," Time declares. And so, they collaborated with the Pew Research Center to conduct a nationwide poll about marriage and the modern American family.

"What we found is that marriage, whatever its social, spiritual or symbolic appeal, is in purely practical terms just not as necessary as it used to be," says Time. "Neither men nor women need to be married to have sex or companionship or professional success or respect or even children — yet marriage remains revered and desired."

The article went on to discuss a number of interesting statistics and findings, like these:

1. Nearly 40 percent of us think marriage is obsolete. "This doesn't mean, though, that we're pessimistic about the future of the American family; we have more faith in the family than we do in the nation's education system or its economy," says Time. "We're just more flexible about how family gets defined." In other words, we're more comfortable with the idea of single mothers and fathers, or unmarried people who equally share parenting duties, and all sorts of other alternative familial relationships.

2. Despite our skepticism about marriage, about 70 percent of us are or have been married at least once. That data is from the 2010 Census. "The Pew poll found that although 44 percent of Americans under 30 believe marriage is heading for extinction, only 5 percent of those in that age group do not want to get married," says Time.

3. Americans are increasingly marrying people with similar education levels, in a similar socioeconomic position. "Fifty years ago, doctors commonly proposed to nurses and businessmen to their secretaries," says Time. "Even 25 years ago, a professional golfer might marry, say, a flight attendant. Now doctors tend to cleave unto other doctors, and executives hope to be part of a power couple." (Do I want to marry another dating blogger? No, I do not.)

4. Eight Times as many children are born out of wedlock today as compared to 1960.

5. There has also been a sharp uptick in the percentage of marriages in which the wife is older. (Nice! Go cougars!)

6. We're more accepting of working mothers than we were thirty years ago. "In [a 1978 Time] poll, fewer than half of all respondents thought that the best kind of marriage was one in which both the husband and the wife worked outside the home," Time notes. "In the new Pew poll, 62 percent do. Perhaps that's not surprising given these parallel data: in 1970, 40 percent of wives worked outside the home. Now 61 percent do."

7. While two-thirds of us think a man should be a good provider, more men than women do. "Meanwhile, almost a third of Americans think it's important for a wife to be a good provider, too."

8. There was a 13 percent increase in couples living together from 2009 to 2010. "Census researchers were so surprised at the jump that they double-checked their data," says Time. "Eventually they attributed the sharp increase to the recession: these newly formed couples were less likely to have jobs." Time adds, "Couples who move in together before marrying don't divorce any less often."

9. Sociologists note that Americans have a rate of marriage — and of remarriage — among the highest in the Western world. (In between is a divorce rate higher than that of most countries in the European Union.)

The Time article also included this quote from Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University and the author of The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today: "Getting married is a way to show family and friends that you have a successful personal life. It's like the ultimate merit badge." That surprised me. Given how hard it is for so many people to find (and stay in) satisfying, long-term relationships in this day and age, I personally tend to think someone with a "successful personal life" has plenty of close friends and knows how to spend her off-hours in an enjoyable way.

Anyway, what do you guys think about all this? Do any of these factoids surprise you? Relieve you? Dismay you?

How do you feel about marriage? Is getting married important to you? Or are you skeptical of it as an institution? Do you think we'd all be a lot happier if our relationships were less teleological — meaning, if we were less focused on getting married and more concerned with making sure our relationships are pleasant and engaging on a day-to-day level? Should we be with partners who encourage us to reach our potential and change in all sorts of ways — and does remaining outside of a marriage ensure more flexibility? Or is it really within a committed long-term relationship that we are most likely to bloom and grow?

(And readers like Edwinna, who are married, please give us your perspective too... Is marriage harder or easier than you thought it was going to be? Why did you decide to get married? Do you think it's for everyone?)