The wisdom about divorce in America goes something like this: the sexual revolution sparked a sharp rise in the divorce rate from 1950 until about 1980, leading to the famous formulation that half of all American marriages would end in an uncoupling, conscious or otherwise. But in the 1980s, the divorce rate began to decline. Economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers summed it up thusly in 2011:
Couples marrying after the 1970s were better calibrated about how their family life would play out and were likely better matched for a life together based upon modern gender roles. As such, they were likely in a better position to have their marriages survive than were those marrying in the 1970s.
But a new paper out this month from demographers at the University of Minnesota challenges the traditional narrative. Sheela Kennedy and Stephen Ruggles have found that the divorce rate hasn't declined since 1980, it has only flattened. And when they controlled for changes in the age composition of the married population (the U.S. population was younger in 1980, and younger couples have a higher risk for divorce), they found that the age-standardized divorce rate has actually risen by an astonishing 40 percent since then.
To make a long methodology short, the United States has done an uneven and often inadequate job collecting divorce data over the decades. The Census Bureau, noting this "long-standing void in data on marriages and divorces," added a battery of marriage and divorce-related questions to the American Community Survey in 2008. This paper is part of a first wave of research capitalizing on the new data and the new methods of analysis it allows.
A key point is that the rise of divorce has not occurred evenly across all age groups. The chart below looks at what the authors call the prevalence of marital instability, which they define as "the percentage of ever-married persons who have ever been divorced or separated." The line for 1970 is comparatively flat -- there wasn't much of a difference in the prevalence of divorce between young people and older people. But starting with the 1980 line you can see a bulge forming at the younger end of the age spectrum as the baby boomers started divorcing. Looking at the lines for 1995 and 2010, you can watch this bulge shift rightward as the boomers age:
The same people who had unprecedented divorce incidence in 1980 and 1990 when they were in their 20s and 30s are now in their 40s, 50s, and 60s. The Baby Boom generation was responsible for the extraordinary rise in marital instability after 1970. They are now middle-aged, but their pattern of high marital instability continues.
The flipside of this finding is the relative rarity of divorce among younger Americans today. This is likely due to a variety of reasons: people are waiting longer to get married, and cohabitation is on the rise. In the 1970s, a couple might get married at 25 and be divorced by 30. But today, that same couple would be more likely to simply live together for a few years and then head their separate ways when things go south.
As an assessment of the health of American marriages, these findings cut two ways. On one hand, a divorce is a far more disruptive and messy life event than simply moving out of your partner's apartment. In that sense you have to applaud the wisdom of today's twenty- and thirty-somethings for taking their time before tying the knot. But as Reihan Salam notes at the National Review, cohabitating relationships sometimes produce children. And whether they happen via cohabitation or divorce, split-ups are bad for kids.