Millennials,Gen Xers Driving A Drop In U.S. Divorce Rate

Published: Thursday, October 4, 2018 - 12:29pm
Updated: Thursday, October 4, 2018 - 3:41pm
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MARK BRODIE: You've probably heard the off quoted statistic that half of all marriages end in divorce. It's a sobering rate used to warn of the difficulties of the institution and the likelihood that if you enter into it unprepared you'll become another statistic. But it's not that simple.

PHILIP COHEN: I'm sure people will be disappointed to learn that there really isn't one number which is the divorce rate.

LAUREN GILGER: Philip Cohen teaches sociology at the University of Maryland, and he conducted a new analysis of U.S. Census data that looks at the current divorce rate in the country. And he says there is some research behind that 50 percent divorce rate that you hear about.

COHEN: If you take all the people who marry in one year and you follow them forever, you can figure out how many of them end up getting divorced. I mean, in the end, every marriage ends in either divorce or death. I'm sorry to say. So we have been able to follow some whole cohorts. And the Baby Boomers, who are the most divorce prone generation ever in history, they did approach 50 percent when you look at them having reached the end of their divorce years.

GILGER: But the Baby Boomers kids' — us Millennials and Gen X'ers mark — are doing things a little differently: staying married. Cohen's new analysis shows that Americans under the age of 45 are driving a sharp drop in the country's divorce rate. It's gone down 18 percent from 2008 to 2016. So what's behind this drop? I spoke with Cowen via Skype more about it, and the data he used to come up with these conclusions.

COHEN: What I'm using here is the Census Bureau has a big survey called the American Community Survey they've been doing since 2008. They've asked this question: Did you get divorced in the last year? And it's a big survey with millions of people so it's really good. And it's the first time we've been able to really break divorce down by age, and sex, and race, and education and everything else on such a large scale — and now over almost a decade. So what we think of is the divorce rate is of everybody who's married, how many people get divorced? You can do it in a given year. It's you know it's about 1.7 percent. You can do it over the lifetime of a marriage. That's a projection. That's a guess.

GILGER: OK, so you looked at this data, this community survey, and you were able to find that even though the marriage rate — like the number of people who get married has also gone down — those who are getting married today have a greater chance of staying married than they did 10 years ago. So talk a little bit about what might be behind that change and a little bit more about what you found here?

COHEN: Well, I can't look inside people's relationships and know what really caused the divorces, but because it's a big demographic survey we can break it down by some key variables. And so the divorce rate declined about 18 percent from 2008 to 2016. That is the chance of a given divorce ending. And when we look at it more carefully, we can see that's driven entirely by people under age 45. So the divorce rate fell for people under age 45 and did not fall for older people. And then we also see that it's related to people getting married at older ages, and people getting married with higher levels of education. And those are probably the main contributors to the declining divorce rate.

GILGER: Right. So there's this important demographic divide here it sounds like.

COHEN: Yes, and marriage in a way is becoming a more elite institution where increasingly it's people who have college degrees getting married and marrying each other. And those marriages are less likely to end in divorce than marriages used to be, which is great for them, but doesn't really tell us that relationships overall in society are becoming more stable or long lasting.

GILGER: Yeah. So okay so on the other side of that — the lower socioeconomic status people with less education — are they getting divorced more or are they just not getting married at all?

COHEN: Well, both. You know people without college degrees; the main divide is between people with college degrees and people without college degrees. And people without college degrees are getting married less than they used to, but their relationships are also less stable even if they don't get married. And those are mostly cohabiting relationships, and including relationships with children. And so what we see is that people are not postponing marriage because they don't want to get married or don't sort of respect the institution — they're not getting married because they don't feel ready. Because we tend to define marriage as an achievement, as something you do when you have gotten to some level of status and stability. And a lot of people with job instability, lower incomes, housing instability, a lot of debt and so on, they don't feel ready — and so they don't get married. And in fact, the relationships are not that stable partly because of all those all those problems that they have, or that they're likely to encounter, and so their relationships are more likely to end.

GILGER: When you look at these generational shifts that are happening — including the inequities in and how it plays out for each demographic — what do you think this says about the future of the institution of marriage in the country?

COHEN: Well, I think it's increasingly becoming kind of a cornerstone of our system of inequality. Marriage is becoming something that the haves have more than the have-nots. And when the haves have, it last longer. So that's an awkward way of saying it, but I just think what we're going to see increasingly is marriages for people who have already arrived, who have already achieved some status and stability — and they're going to be divorcing less. And so marriage is becoming a key source of advantage in our increasingly unequal society. The reason I think this is going to continue is because if you look at just the people who are getting married now, you see the trends very strongly there. The gap between college and non-college people is increasing. The age of marriage is increasing, and what we're seeing with the divorce rates — it just really looks like we're heading into a future where there's one group of people with high marriage, and low divorce and a larger group of people with low marriage rates and much more relationship instability.

GILGER: Alright. Philip Cohen is a sociology professor at the University of Maryland. Philip thank you so much for joining us to talk about this.

COHEN: Oh, thank you very much for having me.

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