The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

I do? No thanks. The economics behind America’s marriage decline.

Mary Coppola is 35 and single. Ever since she graduated from college, she’s been so focused on her career that marriage was the last thing on her mind. But now that she’s getting older and wanting to have children, she hopes, one day soon, she will marry.

“I had a vision for what I wanted in my future, and that included marriage, but it just wasn’t my focal point for years,” said Coppola, a director of marketing and creative services for a health-care association in Arlington, Va. “It wasn’t until two years ago, when I’d finally gotten to the point in my career where I was very happy that I turned my attention and energies to getting into the right, healthy relationship that would lead to marriage.”

Her sister is a different story.

Melissa Coppola is 34 and single. She never plans to marry. Or have children. She, like her sister, is in a committed relationship. “But what’s the point of spending all that money on a wedding?” she asked. She’s doesn’t like the idea of women changing their names or the “ownership” qualities associated with marriage. “My boyfriend and I are committed to each other. We just don’t feel the need to get married.”

Melissa Coppola, who works for a defense contractor in New Hampshire, and her boyfriend, Jack, live together, plan their finances and travel together, have talked about spending their lives together, and even planned for retirement together. The only way they would consider marriage, she said, is if it someday made financial sense, for tax purposes, or in the event that one needed to care for the other and hospitals were sticklers about visitation rights. “I feel like a lot of people are getting married because it’s an old tradition,” Coppola said, “or because of guilt.”

A report being released today analyzing recent Census Bureau data shows just how much marriage may, indeed, be becoming just another “old tradition.” The Pew Research Center found that the share of never-married Americans has never been higher. Fully one in five people over the age of 25 have never been married, up from one in 10 in 1960.

And, if current trends continue, the report authors project that a rising share of Americans, like Melissa Coppola, will never marry at all. When today’s young adults reach their mid-40s to mid-50s, the report notes, a record high share, 25 percent, will never have been married, compared to 12 percent in 1960. The trend is most stark among African Americans: The share of never-married white and Hispanic Americans has doubled from 1960 — to 16 percent for whites and 26 percent for Hispanics. The share of never-married African Americans has jumped from 9 percent in 1960 to 36 percent.

“The projections really suggest that there’s more than just a delay going on here. People are more likely to be never married and stay never married as they reach middle age,” said Kim Parker, director of social trends research at the Pew Research Center, and one of the report’s authors. “That’s a significant change.”

A host of complex factors – economic change, demographics, more women in the labor force and shifting attitudes about the value of marriage – have contributed to what Parker called a “mismatch in the marriage market” and made finding a partner and getting married more complicated.

Further, turning conventional marriage wisdom on its head, the report found that while a majority of Americans still hoped to marry someday, it was a scant majority, just 53 percent, down from 61 percent four years ago. Meanwhile, ambivalence is on the rise, with about one-third of those responding to a Pew Research survey of 2,000 adults saying they weren’t sure they want to get married. And 13 percent were sure that they didn’t.

And that ambivalence and disinclination to marry held true regardless of whether one had a college education – where marriage rates and marriage stability tend to be high – or a high school education, where marriage rates are lower and marriages more often end in divorce.

The report found that the “mismatch” in the marriage market is hitting hardest on men with less than a high school degree. “They’re the ones not finding a match,” said Wendy Wang, senior researcher and another report author. “It used to be that men were equally likely to be married or never married, regardless of their educational background. But a big gap has developed over time.”

Young men’s wages have fallen 20 percent since 1980, according to Parker and Wang, and many said they’re delaying or foregoing marriage because they don’t feel financially secure. At the same time, nearly four-fifths of never-married women said the top thing they’re looking for in a spouse is someone with a steady job.

Brad Wilcox, a proponent of marriage and director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, said that if the report’s findings hold up, they imply that a seismic shift may be underway in how Americans live, love and raise children. “The report does suggest that we are continuing to travel down the road to a less-married America,” he said. “But I’m particularly worried about working class and poor Americans who feel that a decent marriage is out of reach for them.”

This summer, the Coppola sisters have been attending a flurry of weddings of friends and relatives. Mary Coppola, who hopes one day soon to be walking down the aisle herself, said that when she began looking for a spouse, she wanted someone who also wanted children. Beyond that, she was looking for someone with as much education as she had – she went to graduate school. She wanted someone with a steady job and someone with a similar socioeconomic background. “Things like religion, race and ethnicity didn’t even factor in,” she said.

In the Pew Research survey, 78 percent of women rated someone with a steady  job as “very  important” when choosing a spouse. For men, 70 percent said having similar ideas about raising children was most important in choosing a spouse. Only about one-third of men and women said having the same religious or moral beliefs or at least as much education would be the deciding factor in choosing a spouse. And less than 10 percent chose having the same racial or ethnic background.

At the summer weddings, married friends and relatives eager for the Coppola sisters to settle down, marry and have children asked the women about their plans. The sisters’ parents, like many in their generation, have been married for 37 years.

Mary Coppola withstood the pressure. But her sister, while trying not to make an anti-marriage statement, had a harder time. “We were brought up religious,” Melissa Coppola said. “So for some aunts, uncles and grandparents, this isn’t the way you’re supposed to do it.”