The Associated Press
Updated: 6:50 p.m. ET Dec. 1, 2004
WASHINGTON - It used to be common for men and women to get a marriage certificate not too long after collecting their high school diplomas. Not anymore.
Census Bureau figures for 2003 show that a third of men and nearly a quarter of women ages 30 to 34 have never been married, nearly four times the rates in 1970.
It’s further evidence that young people are focusing on education and careers before settling down and beginning families, experts say. Societal taboos about couples’ living together before marriage also have eased, said Linda Waite, a sociologist at the University of Chicago.
Jeni Landers, 30, a law student from Boston, said she considered living together a requirement before saying “I do.”
“I don’t know how people got married before living together first,” said Landers, who moved in with her fiancé after getting engaged nearly a year ago. “This is crucial to see how you get along.”
‘They see it sort of as dessert’ Data from the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey released this week show that the age at which someone typically married for the first time rose from 20.8 for women and 23.2 for men in 1970 to 25.3 and 27.1, respectively, last year.
In 1970, only 6 percent of women 30 to 34 had never been married; the figure was 23 percent in 2003. The rate for never-married men in the same age group rose from 9 percent to 33 percent.
Among younger women, 36 percent of those 20 to 24 had never been married in 1970; last year it was 75 percent. Among men in that age group, the change was nearly as dramatic: 55 percent in 1970 to 86 percent last year.
“The majority of people still want to get married, but they see it sort of as dessert now, something that’s desirable rather than necessary,” said Dorion Solot, executive director of the Alternatives to Marriage Project, based in Albany, N.Y., which aims to fight discrimination based on marital status and to seek equality and fairness for unmarried people.
“People want to be more sure that they don’t make a marriage mistake,” Solot said.
Meanwhile, societal pressures to marry before having children have decreased, said Thomas Coleman, executive director for Unmarried America, based in Glendale, Calif., which also promotes equality for unmarried people. Among the group’s concerns are tax policies that it contends are stacked against single people.
Unmarried births also risingIn 2003, nearly 35 percent of all births were to unmarried women, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. That’s up from 11 percent in 1970, although the rate of increase has slowed since 1995, when 32 percent of births were out-of-wedlock. Births to unmarried teens have declined since the mid-1990s.
Meaghan Lamarre, 24, a research assistant in Providence, R.I., said she and her boyfriend of 10 months “are not in a big hurry to marry.” Lamarre’s focus is on work and getting into an Ivy League graduate program, possibly in public policy.
“There’s no time frame of when to get married. ... It’s not a goal,” said Lamarre, a member of the Alternatives to Marriage Project. “I’m not opposed to it, but I think I could live happily ever after without being married.”
That kind of talk disturbs David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values, a pro-marriage organization based in New York. Blankenhorn said Lamarre’s philosophy was more of a concern to him than those who delayed marriage to focus on school or careers.
Compared with 1970, Blankenhorn said, “there is a sense that marriage has a less dominant role in our society and is less influential as a social institution.”
Having parents or other relatives who are divorced may also make some people in their 20s and 30s hesitant about entering into long-term relationships, said Dennis Lowe, a psychology professor at Pepperdine University in California who focuses on counseling for engaged and married couples.
Data from the National Center for Health Statistics show that the U.S. divorce rate was 2.2 per 1,000 Americans in 1960; it rose steadily to 5.3 per 1,000 in 1981, but it has declined slowly since then, to 4 per 1,000 in 2001.
Census figures also show fewer Americans at older ages who have never been married. In 1970, 8 percent of people 65 and older had never married; now it’s 4 percent.
Landers, the Boston law student, said living with her fiancé was a “testing period” as both dealt with school and their careers. “We already knew what we had was concrete, but the actual act of getting engaged holds a lot of weight with a lot of other people,” she said.
Now there’s pressure to set a wedding date, although Landers said there was no immediate plan to do so.
“It drives people crazy,” she said.