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The Future Of Marriage

Image of wedding rings
Robert Cheaib
Flickr Creative Commons

The U.S. Supreme Court will soon rule on whether states can ban same-sex marriage. The right to marry could be extended to more same-sex couples, but will they actually decide to get married?

Research shows about half of the American population thinks they are just as well off if marriage is not a top priority. And the gaps in marriage rates are widening with respect to race and education.

Host Frank Stasio talks with Kim Parker, director of social trends research at the Pew Research Center, about the changing attitudes toward marriage.

He also talks with Christina Gibson-Davis, professor of public policy at Duke University's Sanford School; Lynda Dickson, professor of sociology at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs; and the Rev. Nancy Petty, senior pastor at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh, about the future of marriage.

Who is getting married?

According to the Pew Research Center, about half of American adults are married, but Parker notes that the trends suggest marriage is becoming an institution for the elite.

“For college graduates – while the marriage rate has come down over the past several decades – marriage is still the norm,” Parker says. “But if you look at folks without a college education, they are much less likely to get married than in the past.”

Meanwhile, there is a similar gap emerging along racial lines. The Pew survey says African-Americans are much less likely to get married than whites. In 1960, 9 percent of African-Americans who were 25 or older had never been married, compared to 8 percent of whites. By 2012, those numbers had grown to 36 percent and 16 percent, respectively.

Americans are also waiting longer to tie the knot. The median age for men who are marrying for the first time has risen from 23 to 29 in the last 50 years. For women, it has jumped from 20 to 27.

Why are we (or why aren’t we) getting married?

In their study, Parker and her colleague Wendy Wang found Americans are essentially ambivalent about marriage.

Forty-six percent of respondents agreed with the statement, “soceity is better off if people make marriage and having children a priority.” Fifty percent favored another statement: “society is just as well off if people have priorities other than marriage and children.”

Gibson-Davis says marriage still holds a lot of meaning, but the definition has changed.

“The reasons people used to get married 50 years ago were because women could not survive on their own economically, it was hard to get birth control unless you were married, and you certainly could not have a child out of wedlock unless you faced a lot of social stigma,” Gibson-Davis says. “There were a lot of instrumental reasons.

“People now view marriage as an ultimate status symbol. Their expectations are that when you get married, you have a certain amount of money, you’ve met the partner who fulfills all of your wildest dreams, and that relationship is never going to end.”

What does this mean for the future of marriage?

If the trends continue, researchers project that nearly one in four adults from the Milennial generation will have never been married by the time they reach middle age. That would produce the lowest marriage rate in modern history.

But despite the fact that the demographics of marriage have changed dramatically, Americans still have the desire to get married. It provides benefits when it comes to taxes and health care, and it still holds deep emotional and cultural significance in the United States.

Dickson argues that can create pressure to get married, some of which could be alleviated by extending more benefits to single Americans.

“It may be a good idea to start looking at the options, singlehood being one of them, and providing supports for those who are – either by choice or by necessity – will live their lives as singles,” Dickson says.

“I do believe that regardless of the race or the class, marriage is still going to be something that is highly valued, but there should be other options.”

Will Michaels is WUNC's Weekend Host and Reporter.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.