Family Issues



In a New York Times op-ed, Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers report that, contrary to popular perceptions, divorce rates are not increasing:

Last week's release of new divorce statistics led to a smorgasbord of reporting feeding the myth. This newspaper warned readers, "Don't stock up on silver anniversary cards" because "women and men who married in the late 1970s had a less than even chance of still being married 25 years later." And apparently things are getting worse, as "the latest numbers suggest an uptick in the divorce rate among people married in the most recent 20 years covered in the report, 1975-1994." Other major newspapers ran similar articles.

The story of ever-increasing divorce is a powerful narrative. It is also wrong. In fact, the divorce rate has been falling continuously over the past quarter-century, and is now at its lowest level since 1970. While marriage rates are also declining, those marriages that do occur are increasingly more stable. For instance, marriages that began in the 1990s were more likely to celebrate a 10th anniversary than those that started in the 1980s, which, in turn, were also more likely to last than marriages that began back in the 1970s.

Where did the inaccurate articles come from? According to Stevenson and Wolfers, when the Census Bureau announced "that slightly more than half of all marriages occurring between 1975 and 1979 had not made it to their 25th anniversary," the data had been gathered when "it had not yet been 25 years since the wedding day of around 1 in 10 of those whose marriages they surveyed." The bureau noted the problem in a footnote, but much of the media missed the caveat.

The whole article is here. Wolfers has some more thoughts here and here. And Steven Horwitz adds an interesting hypothesis here:

[S]aying that divorce rates are not rising need not mean that "marriage as an institution" hasn't changed. We do know that marriage rates are down and marriage is taking place later, so one likely explanation is that we are seeing fewer but better marriages. That would be consistent with the general decline in the benefits of marriage as the gains from specialization have dramatically decreased with the increase in the female labor force participation rate and the closing of the gender wage gap. The reasons to marry have much more to do with personal happiness than broadly economic considerations. Without the stronger economic incentive to marry, it may be that people are getting "pickier" and thus entering better marriages (even given that divorce is easier than it used to be).

NEXT: Truthiness on Young Black Males in Prison Cells vs. College Dorms

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  1. You mean our permissive attitudes aren’t destroying the sanctity of marriage? I thought man-on-dog was supposed to ruin everything?

  2. Isn’t part of the reason divorce rates are down the fact that marriage rates are down as well? So marriages that may have ended in divorce never happened. Depending on what your end goal is, marriage or no divorce, lowered divorce rates can be good or bad.

  3. Years ago, maybe even 10 years ago, I read an article about a small study in which wedding attendents had been asked to predict whether or not the marriage they were attending would last five years. The survey was anonymous and the husband and wife were not told the results.

    Five years later, the researchers checked back in and found that the people attending the wedding were able to predict divorce with almost 100% accuracy.

  4. so what you’re saying is that the people at the wedding neglected their duty to “speak now or forever hold [their] peace?”

  5. the above comment was directed at Ralphy

  6. Another thing – I’m pretty much an upper middle class white guy in his mid-30s. I have dozens of friends and acquaintences from high school and college, as well as family members, who are married. I only know one person in my peer group who has been divorced.

    The point is that there seems to be a real class divide in rates of divorce. Or maybe it’s because I’m Catholic?

  7. “”Another thing – I’m pretty much an upper middle class white guy in his mid-30s””

    graduation from Colgate in 1991.

    late 30s.

  8. I knew sleeping around would be good for something!

  9. I’m just slightly older than you, Ralphy, (I’m 40) and from roughly the same social milieu, and my take from what I’ve seen in life is that the big “divorce decade” for those in our group is people in their 40s.

    That’s when a lot of money problems hit due to increased obligations, when the “flame” can die out, when women get over the fairy-tale crap, and when men fall under the delusion that they would be ‘hip’ and attractive again if only they were dressing stupidly, driving a sports car, and dating a 25-year-old.

  10. Despite the above, I do agree with the idea that post-Boomers may, as a group, have married better overall than our predecessors. Since there was less social pressure on middle-class folks to marry, I don’t think there was generally as much pressure to marry our high-school and college sweethearts as in previous generations–though that may be regional in part. My Texas-native wife reports that the overwhelming majority of her classmates married either right after high school or college, and that all but a few are still married.

  11. Now that divorce is easier and marriages are entered more pragmatically and cautiously, the next big libertarian step for American families will be easier emancipation of minors. It’s a necessary correction for the upcreep in age of majority for the last few generations of Americans.

    Anyone got a problem with that?

  12. You quote Steven Horwitz as saying:
    “marriage is taking place later”

    But even that may be incorrectly analyzing data (did Wolfers mention this in one of his posts at Marginal R?), it may actually be that the difference in ages between men and women actually getting married is narrowing, which may indicate a delay in only women, or something else entirely, but the blanket statement of “we do know” that marriage is taking place later is, we know there has been a change, that we know for sure.

    But what that change is exactly is not as easy to determine at first blush.

    And I’m glad you included a link to his post at Marginal, he says that he personally thinks that the reason for the misrepresented data can be found in the politics:

    “Reporting on our families is a lot like reporting on the economy: statistical tales of woe provide the foundation for reform proposals. The only difference is that conservatives use these data to make the case for greater government intervention in the marriage market, while liberals use them to promote deregulation of marriage.”

    So that’s one economist who notes that deregulation is not always the prerogative of conservatives.

  13. Divorce rates are pretty high, and do approach one-in-two marriages.

    Among highly-educated people, and certain religious groups (e.g., Catholics), it’s lower, but among working-class people, it may be even higher than one-in-two.

    But among households with incomes over $100,000 per year, it’s lower. It’s like one-in-six.

  14. I’ve also heard it theorized that gen-x’ers have lower divorce rates because they were the first generation to be significantly impacted by divorce, which supports the argument that younger generations are being choosier in who they marry in the first place. I guess the bottom line is this is just another example of our society’s tendency to believe that things were better off in the good old days.

  15. ClubMedSux,

    I’d attribute it to the destigmatization of premarital sex and cohabitation. If the only way you can get your freak on in a societally acceptable manner is if you’re married to each other, you’re pretty likely to some marginal choices in a mate when you’re 18-20 years old.

  16. crap. that was me (time). forgot to put in the usual url.


  17. Johnny at 148:

    The median age at first marriage for both men and women climbed steadily from the early 70s up through the mid-90s. It’s leveled off a tad since then. My claim about “marrying later” was a general one about the last 30 year or so, rather than the last few.

  18. It will be very interesting to see what happens to marriage and divorce in Generation Y. We X-ers still grew up largely with traditional notions of marriage and family, maybe even more so than the late Boomers who came of age in the ’70s. But I’ve noticed that the Gen-Y folks seem to have more casual attitudes toward sexual activity and out-of-wedlock childbirth than we did.

    Not making a value judgment on that, BTW, just an observation. Marriage could be a seen as a very different thing 15 or 20 years from now.

  19. Divorce rates are pretty high, and do approach one-in-two marriages.

    A lot of what pushes up divorce ratges is serial marriages. A few people who have 5 divorces each can make the overall rate look really bad. Of marriages in existence at any given time, fewer than half will end in divorce.

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