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.
[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).