Divorce rates are dropping dramatically. From 2008 to 2016, the number of couples filing for divorce declined by an incredible 18 percent. It’s not older couples who are fueling the trend since the divorce numbers for those aged 45 and over are actually rising. It’s the millennial generation who is getting, and staying, married.
The reasons have less to do with finding the secret of marital bliss than the fact that those who are tying the knot are better educated and more affluent, according to University of Maryland professor Philip N. Cohen. He’s the author of the study, The Coming Divorce Decline.
Lower Marriage Rates
While millennials aren’t getting divorced at anywhere near the same rate as their parents’ generation, they also aren’t tying the knot at the same rates, either. Marriage, rather than a traditional institution, is becoming a choice for the well-to-do. Working class millennials are living together and starting families, but a wedding is less likely part of the picture.
The stigma of living together and having children out of wedlock is virtually gone. Those living and having children outside of marriage aren’t part of divorce statistics, because they never made their union legal. While Cohen’s work reflects the reality of married millennials, it cannot account for the relationship break-up rates of those in quasi-marital situations.
No Longer a Rite of Passage
The downside of this new economic and social reality is that marriage may become a rite of passage only for the college educated with a good job. The Brookings Institute reports that marriage among college-educated 30-year-olds surpassed those who did not have a degree for the first time in 2008. In the decade since the marriage gap has widened.
In fact, the more highly educated the woman, the more likely she is to wed. For middle-aged women, those with more advanced degrees have higher marriage rates than women who have only earned a bachelor’s degree.
Increasingly, marriage is tied to economic independence, which those with only a high school degree have less chance of achieving. Millennials are waiting to marry until they have completed their degrees and obtained well-paying jobs. It’s a much more egalitarian structure than marriages in prior generations. In the past, people were simply expected to marry.
Now, it’s a conscious choice and a definite indication of status. For those who may never obtain a “good” job, the odds of marrying dwindle significantly. Currently, approximately 75 percent of women in their early 40s with a bachelor’s degree are married, compared with just 50 percent of women the same age with only a high school diploma.
A lower divorce rate disguises the overall change in attitudes toward marriage. While affluent millennials can expect more stability and longevity in their marriages, the decline of marriage itself as an institution exacerbates increasing social inequality.
Cohen notes that cohabitation has “become less stable.” While children born to married, educated millennials are more likely to grow up in an intact home, those children born to less prosperous and educated parents outside of marriage may find themselves raised by a single parent.