A Quarter Of 40-Year-Olds Have Never Married—Why It Matters

It was once the American dream to get married, buy land, and raise children. Now, the institution of marriage is collapsing as more and more people are choosing to remain single.

By Molly Farinholt4 min read
Pexels/Leeloo Thefirst

A new study from Pew Research shows that, as of 2021, 25% of 40-year-old Americans have never been married. That is a 5% increase from 2010 and a 19% increase from 1980, when only 6% of 40-year-olds had never been married. 

So, who exactly isn’t getting married? Pew’s analysis found that more men than women had never married. 46% of unmarried 40-year-olds were black, and 27% were Hispanic. 33% of unmarried 40-year-olds held only a high school diploma or less, and just over 25% held an associate’s degree or had not graduated college. 

Why Is the Marriage Rate Dropping?

It’s clear that marriage is on the decline in America. But why is this happening? One reason is that the public views of marriage and cohabitation have shifted considerably in the past few decades. Today, most Americans believe that it’s perfectly fine for an unmarried couple to live together and even raise children together. In 1987, roughly 33% of women had cohabited. By 2010, that statistic had nearly doubled. It’s now actually more common to have cohabited than to have married. A Gallup poll shows that a majority of Americans in 2006 still viewed marriage as a “very important” step for a couple who wants to spend the rest of their lives together; by 2013, only 38% regarded it as “very important.” Marriage was once largely viewed as a necessary precursor to many other momentous life changes, such as living with another person and procreating. Now, it’s regarded by a majority of Americans as optional. 

Of course, hookup culture has played a heavy hand in the war against marriage. Recent data shows that 60-80% of American college students have engaged in some sort of hookup. With the “sex without commitment” mentality so pervasive in today’s culture, it’s no wonder that marriage is getting pushed to the back burner. 

The threat of divorce also leads many Millennials to delay or altogether avoid marriage. Today, half of all marriages end in divorce. Since Baby Boomers had such high divorce rates, Generation X became the first generation where it was normal to have divorced parents. This trend has continued, making future generations gun-shy when it comes to marriage. Ironically, cohabiting (which is increasingly common, as aforementioned) increases the likelihood of divorce. 57% of couples who didn’t cohabitate remained married for 20 or more years. Only 46% of couples who did cohabitate remained married for 20 or more years. 

For women, in particular, student debt is linked to a reduction in marriage rates. 

Financial instability is another popular reason people delay or avoid marriage. Today, financial independence is achieved later in life. For women, in particular, student debt is linked to a reduction in marriage rates. More irony here, though: Married couples enjoy more financial stability. 

Another major contributing factor to the decline in marriage is the increasing number of women in the workforce. 50 years ago, 44% of women between the ages of 30 and 50 reported no independent earnings. In 2012, only 25% of women had no independent earnings. With the focus of women shifting to the workplace, it’s shifting away from the “antiquated” American dream of getting married and raising babies. 

The new wave of feminism that has had a grip on society for the past decade has also sent the message to men and women alike that marriage is an obsolete idea propagated by the patriarchy. According to those who subscribe to this thinking, women don’t need men; they should strive for success independently and find fulfillment in their lives without the weight of a husband. The sad truth is that these ideas have largely led to the collapse of American families, as 40% of American children are now born to single mothers. In 2017, the poverty rate for fatherless families was 36.5% (compared to 7.5% for families with a married mother and father).

Why Does It Matter? 

The death of marriage in the United States has far-reaching consequences, including – but certainly not limited to – a dipping birth rate and adverse effects on the economy and the individual. 

According to the Institute for Family Studies, the decline in fertility in America can be explained by the dipping marriage rates. Women have high birth rates when married. Compared to 2001, though, a much smaller proportion of women today are married during peak fertility years. Put simply, the lower the marriage rate, the lower the birth rate. Currently, the fertility rate is 1.78, which is below the 2.1 births per woman replacement rate. From an economic standpoint, this is concerning because per capita federal debt will likely increase for future generations. It will also result in a smaller workforce, which, in turn, results in a sluggish economy. 

Birth rates aside, a lower marriage rate alone negatively impacts the economy. Higher levels of marriage are linked to a stronger economy. There are correlations with more state GDP per capita, a reduction in child poverty, and higher median family incomes. Statistics show that unmarried adults actually earn less than those who are married. 

The obvious truth is that marriage benefits not only society as a whole, but also the individual. Studies have found that married Millennials had better access to health care and other benefits, reported better health, and were less likely to report depression. Married women enjoy more financial stability, are far more likely to be happy, and even live longer. Married men are also healthier, happier, and more successful. 

It’s alarming that our culture no longer upholds marriage – the lifelong union of a man and woman who love each other and desire the good of each other – as a pillar of society. If marriage is no longer deemed important, then the family also falls by the wayside. Communities then begin to crumble, as the prevailing attitude becomes “every man for himself.” We are becoming a more self-centered society – one that is largely afraid of the duties and obligations that necessarily (and beautifully) accompany true love. We can’t escape human nature, though, and it’s inherent in our nature that we need to love and be loved. And we need love in its most authentic form, which is most purely realized in and exemplified by marriage. 

Change happens when married couples and families invite others into their homes and lives and show them the good, the messy, and the beautiful.

How To Make Marriage Desirable in a Culture Afraid of It

In order for marriage to once again become a foundational element of our society, we need to slowly but surely undo the damage that began in force during the Sexual Revolution. We need to champion the beauty of marriage and family in our own circles and communities. Men and women need to be educated on the risks of hookup culture (like depression), the practical benefits of marriage (like greater financial stability), and– most importantly– the joy that comes with marriage and family life. 

This cultural shift can be accelerated through more positive (and truthful) media coverage, but will likely be achieved by the slow, but effective game of changing minds and hearts through one-on-one personal encounters with others, deeper friendships, and stronger communities. This comes about through married couples and families inviting others into their homes and lives and showing them the good, the messy, and the beautiful. Little by little, this will change minds, pushing back against the narratives of feminism, hookup culture, and progressivism.  

Closing Thoughts

It’s an unfortunate truth that marriage is on the decline in America. This trend doesn’t have to persist, though. The cultural tide can shift with each couple who says “I do” and witnesses the beauty of marriage and family. As a result, the economy will benefit, individuals will lead happier and more fulfilled lives, and our society will be able to survive and thrive. A culture that believes in love, responsibility, and commitment will certainly flourish. 

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