Marriage Stages a Comeback (but Mostly Just for College Grads)

The share of newly married adults grew 2012. But bachelor's degree holders were responsible for almost all of the jump. 

When it comes to matrimony, the United States is two separate countries. There's college-graduate America, where getting and staying married is still the norm. Then there's the rest of America, where marriage rates are retreating and divorce is rampant. 

Recently, it appears, that cultural chasm may have grown a tiny bit wider.  

So says a new analysis by the Pew Research Center's Richard Fry, which found that the rate of new marriages rebounded ever so slightly in 2012 after a post-recession decline. However, almost all of the growth (87 percent of it) occurred among bachelor's degree holders. Marriage rates actually dipped among high school graduates and adults with some college education, but no B.A., and rose minimally among high school dropouts.   

Fry does add some important caveats: 

There’s already a fairly vigorous debate about to what extent marriage and divorce are affected by economic activity.  Some researchers have shown that marriage rates did not decline significantly during the Great Recession.  And others have cautioned that it is difficult to conclude that the recession accelerated the retreat from marriage, so it seems premature to assert too much from the new data. 

But consider the longterm trends. For college graduates, the marriage rate has held more or less steady over the past decade. For the rest of America, it's gradually eroding. Take 35-to-39-year-olds. In 2012, 81 percent of bachelor's degree holders that age had tied the knot at some point, roughly the same as in 2000 (historical marriage rates in the Pew table below). Among everyone else, the figure was 73 percent, down 9 percentage points in 12 years. 

It's hard to talk about any important aspect of the economy today without talking about weddings. College graduates have pulled away from the rest of the country in part because they've made a habit of marrying each other and combining their high incomes (sociologists call this assortative mating; my colleague Matt O'Brien dubbed it the "When Harry Met Sally" explanation of income inequality). Depending on who you ask, declining marriage rates are either a driver of poverty or an extremely worrisome symptom  of it. Pew's new stats are a reminder that the marriage gap may well get worse before it gets better. 

Presented by

Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

What Happened to the Milky Way?

Light pollution has taken away our ability to see the stars. Can we save the night sky?

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

What Happened to the Milky Way?

Light pollution has taken away our ability to see the stars. Can we save the night sky?

Video

The Faces of #BlackLivesMatter

Scenes from a recent protest in New York City

Video

Desegregated, Yet Unequal

A short documentary about the legacy of Boston busing

Video

Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Life

The Supreme Court justice talks gender equality and marriage.

Video

Social Media: The Video Game

What if the validation of your peers could "level up" your life?

Video

The Pentagon's $1.5 Trillion Mistake

The F-35 fighter jet was supposed to do everything. Instead, it can barely do anything.

More in Business

Just In