Study: ‘The very definition of family is changing’

Alicia Lozano,

WASHINGTON — Wedding bells are ringing for fewer people these days as marriage rates hit a record low. Barely half of adults in the U.S. have tied the knot.

Just 51 percent of people over the age of 18 are married today, according to a new Pew Research Center study. That compares to 72 percent in 1960.

“This marks a continuation of a long term trend,” says Paul Taylor, executive vice president of the Pew Research Center.

“If this trend continues, we are approaching a turning point where fewer than half of all adults in this country will be married.”

The median age for brides and grooms also is up — 26.5 years old for women and 28.7 for men. And, the number of new marriages declined by 5 percent from 2009 to 2010.

All age groups are affected by the decline, but the biggest numbers are among young adults. Just 20 percent of people 18 to 29 are married, compared to 59 percent in 1960.

The causes for the trend are hard to pinpoint. One theory is that high divorce rates in the 1970s and 1980s have directly contributed to an entire generation of young adults who distrust the very institution of marriage.

Therapist and relationship coach Nina Atwood sees this as the inevitable effects of the divorce generation.

“We’re coming out of a long period of a lot of divorce. We have a whole generation of 20-somethings or 30-somethings whose parents were divorced … and I think people are finding that marriage is more challenging in today’s world than it has ever been before,” she says.

But Taylor offers a different possibility: The economy.

Unemployment rates for people in their 20s are at an all-time high. Many young people are forced to live with their parents even after college because of poor job prospects and low salaries.

“It has been difficult for young adults economically to get started in life. There is a feeling of ‘We’re not ready to get married. I don’t have the financial security. I can’t be a provider,'” Taylor says.

Whatever the reason, education, careers and a cautious outlook all contribute to Americans feeling less pressure to marry at an early age, Atwood says.

Young Americans are “hesitating, putting it off a little longer and trying to get married at an older age,” Atwood says. “People are reluctant and afraid about what could happen and what could go wrong.”

But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Waiting longer also means knowing yourself better.

“The ability to look further down the road, being able to see ahead strategically, doesn’t really come into place until you’re in your mid-20s,” Atwood says.

“If you’re in your late 20s, you’re more likely to date with the future in mind as opposed to dating with right now in mind.”

Attitudes also are changing. Nearly four in 10 Americans say marriage is becoming obsolete, according to a 2010 Pew Research survey. But that same survey also found 60 percent of people who have never been married plan to do so one day. It’s just a matter of timing.

“Most people want a lifelong relationship with a special person — there is a tremendous amount of security and stability in having that,” Atwood says. “The only reason people are [waiting] is because they’re fearful of getting a negative outcome.”

The rising trend in is consistent with other relationship shifts. Among young adults, the “stayover” relationship is often taking the place of or delaying marriage. Some couples prefer keeping a separate house or apartment and sleeping over at their significant other’s place most of the time.

These findings mirror the Pew research from last year. While 40 percent of Americans think marriage is becoming obsolete, 34 percent think that the changing definition of family is a good thing. The image of a father, mother and 2.5 children as the nucleus seems to be a thing of the past.

“Are we looking at a phenomena that’s driven by delay in marriage or are we looking at a phenomena where there will be an abandonment of marriage?” asks Taylor. “Frankly, we don’t know the answer to that story yet.”

But one thing is clear, according to Taylor:

“The very definition of family is changing.”

Follow Alicia Lozano and WTOP on Twitter.

(Copyright 2011 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)

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