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Number of singles is at an all-time high, but most of them still want to marry
Marriage in America is changing, according to two unrelated reports that note changing attitudes and actions. One says the proportion of unmarried adults has never been higher, while the other points to an education gap when it comes to who says "I do." - photo by Lois M Collins
About half of American adults are married, down significantly from marriage's peak of 72 percent in 1960 and contributing to an all-time high in the number of adults who are single.

These are among the findings of two reports out this month on changes in Americans' marital status. The Pew Research Center, which has been tracking marital rates for years, notes in its new report that educated people marry at higher rates than those with less education, and that the gap is widening. The difference in marriage rates between those who have a bachelor's degree and those who have a high school diploma or less has tripled in the last 25 years.

Meanwhile, in honor of Unmarried and Single Americans Week Sept. 17-23, a Council on Contemporary Families fact sheet by Bella DePaulo, an academic affiliate at the University of California Santa Barbara, notes more than 45 percent of American adults are divorced, widowed or never married, a marked change from the 28 percent who were single in 1970.

"This is the largest number of single adults in the United States ever," said DePaulo, who wrote the book, "Singled Out: How Singles are Stereotyped, Stigmatized and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After." "There are close to as many unmarried Americans as married ones."

Among America's 110.8 million single adults, 63.5 percent have never married, while 23.1 percent are divorced and 13.4 percent are widowed, she said.

What hasn't changed dramatically, though, is that most adults who have never married still aspire to it, a finding reiterated in the Pew report. Experts have noted that many young people are treating marriage as a "capstone" rather than a "cornerstone," meaning instead of marrying when they're younger, some wait until they've gotten degrees and jobs and they feel like their finances are in place.

Pew said the "decline in the share of married adults can be explained in part by the fact that Americans are marrying later in life" in 2016, the median age for a first marriage was 27.4 for women and 29.5 for men. That's about seven years older than the median ages for first nuptials in 1960.

But the report said "delayed marriage may not explain all of the drop-off. The share of Americans who have never married has been rising steadily in recent decades. At the same time, more adults are living with a partner instead of marrying, and raising children outside of marriage."

Good-sized gaps

Most of those who've never married still hold marriage as an aspiration, said Renee Stepler, a research analyst at Pew who wrote the report with Kim Parker, Pew's director of social trends research.

"There's still definitely a desire amongst the never-married to get married one day," she said.

The Pew report found that 58 percent of people who have never married say they'd like to at some point, while just over a quarter are not sure. About one in seven say they don't plan to marry ever.

But there are significant gaps in who's marrying and who's not and in who wants to and who doesn't, said Stepler.

A quarter-century ago, at least six in 10 adults ages 25 and older were married, regardless of their educational attainment. But in 2015, the differences based on education were significant, according to the Pew report. Among those 25 and older who had a college degree, 65 percent were married, compared to 55 percent of those with some college education and half of those with a high school diploma or less.

Similarly, there are marriage rate gaps based on race and ethnicity, Pew found. Among white adults in 2015, 54 percent were married, compared to 61 percent of Asian adults, 46 percent of Hispanic adults and 30 percent of blacks adults. Pew notes that the "gap between whites and blacks has remained fairly consistent over time."

In August, Pew surveyed 4,971 U.S. adults to gauge their feelings about marriage. Among those who never married, 58 percent said they would like to at some point, while 27 percent said they weren't sure. For 14 percent, the answer was a definite no. Among those who had never married, 20 percent who had no degree said they didn't want to get married. For those with a four-year degree, that percentage dropped to 11.

The gaps also increased with age. Nearly one-third of never-married adults 50 or older said they don't want to get married, compared to 11 percent of younger adults who had never married.

For those who are single now but were married in the past, 45 percent said they don't want to marry again. Nearly a quarter would like to remarry and 30 percent aren't sure.

Among those never-marrieds who may want to get married at some point, Stepler said about 7 in 10 list financial instability as a factor in holding off. "This is common particularly among younger adults, ages 18-29," she added.

Nearly 60 percent of the never-married adults said they hadn't found the right person, while for a quarter, not being ready to settle down was a major reason they were single.

Married with children

A number of studies have shown that children do better when they grow up with two parents who are married to each other. They tend to be healthier, they do better academically and are less likely to be involved with crime, early pregnancy and substance abuse.

Several reasons have been suggested to explain those findings, including the simple fact that a married couple is two people who both presumably show up for the kid, a case of two is better than one.

Two parents might produce more income, for one thing. And having two parents, compared to a single parent, doubles the pool of people who can help with childcare and homework and other factors that are crucial to a young child.

The 2016 American Family Survey conducted for BYU and the Deseret News found that adults who spent their childhoods in homes with their married parents are less apt to have experienced a recent economic crisis and are more likely to be married and see their marriages as healthy.

As that survey was released, Richard Reeves, an adviser on the survey who directs the Center on Families and Children at Brookings Institution, noted that "marriage may be primarily important because it implies the commitment and commitment matters most (for relationship success). People of all ideologies think that raising kids in a stable household is very important. I am glad people think that, because it is important."

The single life

Singles may be overlooked in discussions of family life, as if their contributions don't matter or don't exist, DePaulo said.

DePaulo said she grew up in an era in which most people expected to wed, although she never wanted to get married. And she believes that society's focus on the value of marriage has failed to recognize adequately what single people contribute or how full their lives are.

"You just don't see the ways in which single people are doing really well or even better than people who are married," she said, noting the expectation some have of singles is one of loneliness and disconnection. But that ignores, she said, that single people build rich relationships and networks of family and friends.

"Counter to stereotype, some are more connected to other people," said DePaulo. She points out that people who cohabit or marry often spend less time socializing with friends, family and co-workers than do their single peers, who may provide a great deal of social support to others.

Half of the people in the labor force are single, she said.

"The age at which people marry has become much more spread out than in the past, so some of these folks will go on to marry, but record numbers of Americans spend the majority of their adult lives outside marriage," wrote DePaulo. "It is time to stop seeing singlehood as a temporary way-station."

Of the 110.6 million single American adults, 35.4 million live alone and 14.6 million cohabit with a romantic partner, according to the Council on Contemporary Families fact sheet. Most, though, are in other arrangements, said DePaulo.

She noted that living arrangements for single adults are diverse: "Some single people, including single parents, live with family in multigenerational or extended family households. Others live with friends, or with friends and family. Single mothers sometimes share homes with other single mothers. Unmarried Americans also live in cohousing communities and other neighborhoods where people commit to being part of a community.

"I think that for different people, different types of lives work best. Some people really do live their best lives if they get married maybe get married and have kids. There's nothing new with that; it's been conventional wisdom for a long time. But for some people, living single is the best life.

"We should all get to live the life that is most meaningful for us," DePaulo said.
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