Married couples at a record low

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Kate Shorr, who until recently wrote a blog about her social life in Washington, as a lawyer and lobbyist. She is a 2010 law school graduate who plans to take the bar exam next year, and she works for a law firm now solely as a lobbyist. This version has been corrected.

December 14, 2011

The proportion of adults who are married has plunged to record lows as more people decide to live together now and wed later, reflecting decades of evolving attitudes about the role of marriage in society.

Just 51 percent of all adults who are 18 and older are married, placing them on the brink of becoming a minority, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of census statistics to be released Wednesday. That represents a steep drop from 57 percent who were married in 2000.

Maryland is a little below the national average, at 50 percent, while Virginia is a little higher, at 54 percent, and both are declining. But in the District, which experienced an influx of young adults over the past decade, only one in four adults is married while more than half have never wed.

Is marriage becoming obsolete? Read the Q&A transcript.

The statistics offer a snapshot in time, and do not mean the unmarried will remain that way. They are a byproduct of a steady increase in the median age when people first marry, now at an all-time high of older than 26 for women and almost 29 for men.

“I don’t know anyone who doesn’t want to get married someday,” said Kate Shorr, 30, a lobbyist who until recently wrote a blog about her social life in Washington, A Single Girl Doing Single Things.

“All of us want to meet that special person and marry, but there’s no real rush to do that. Especially in the career-driven society we have here. You don’t move to Washington, D.C., to get married, you move here for your career.”

The marriage patterns are a striking departure from the middle of the 20th century, when the percentage of adults who never wed was in the low single digits. In 1960, for example, when most baby boomers were children, 72 percent of all adults were married. The median age for brides was barely 20, and the grooms were just a couple of years older.

“In the 1950s, if you weren’t married, people thought you were mentally ill,” said Andrew J. Cherlin, a Johns Hopkins University sociologist who studies families. “Marriage was mandatory. Now it’s culturally optional.”

The decline in marriage rates has affected people in every age and ethnic group, but it has been steepest among the young.

A Pew survey last year determined that more than four in 10 Americans younger than 30 consider marriage passe.

“They see it as an obsolete social environment,” said D’Vera Cohn, a Pew researcher who co-wrote the analysis. “People say they want to get married, but Americans are much less likely to actually be married than in the past.”

The slide has worsened with the economy.

Rose Kreider, a Census Bureau demographer who specializes in household statistics, noted last year that 7.5 million couples were living together without being married, a 13 percent jump in just one year. Many had a partner who had lost a job, or they could not afford to maintain two homes.

Most college graduates will marry, eventually. Nearly two in three college graduates are married now, compared with less than half who have a high school education.

“They’re pulling in two incomes, marrying and doing pretty well,” Cherlin said. “People without college educations are having a harder time finding jobs, and they’re reluctant to marry.”

W. Bradford Wilcox, head of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, said marriage is fading fastest in communities with many residents with the least education.

“Half the births to high school-educated moms are out of wedlock,” he said. “Among that group, we’re at a tipping point. Marriage is losing ground among middle Americans. They were doing okay until the last decade or so, and now they’re the most at risk. College-educated folks have been doing pretty darn well.”

Matt Statler is one, and at 29, he is at the median age when men marry. “I’d like to get married, some day,” said the accountant who works as a DJ in the evenings at bars, clubs and weddings in the Washington area. “But I’m definitely in no hurry.”

At this stage of his life, he said, he wants to build his career, hone his photography skills and travel the world without feeling that he should be spending time in a committed relationship.

“It’s just easier to date around and not be as emotionally invested in someone when I have other goals in life right now,” he said.

Statler went home to West Virginia for Thanksgiving. His parents, who married in their early 20s, do not pressure him to marry, he said — although his mother has talked weddings and children with his sister, who recently moved in with her boyfriend.

“Living together, that’s a safer first step,” he said.

The generation born during a time of rising divorce rates in the 1970s and 1980s say that watching their parents split convinced them not to rush.

“I come from divorced parents, and most of my friends do” said Shorr, whose father advised her to stay single until at least age 35. “It’s a matter of not wanting to rush into something, get in over our heads and make a mistake. A lot of us saw our parents make mistakes. We’re going to take our time and make sure we don’t make the same mistakes.”

Database editor Ted Mellnik contributed to this report.

Read more on PostLocal.com:

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The 10-lowest college graduation rates in region

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Bolling is Virginia’s part-time ‘decider’

Read wedding stories from On Love:

‘I never looked back. It was the best decision.’

‘A nontraditional love affair’

‘He was just a very calm presence’

‘She had a little twinkle in her eye’

Carol Morello writes about demographics and the census, as well as a lot of other stuff that comes down the pike. She has worked at the Washington Post since 2000.
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