Trends of the Past Four Decades

Marriage

Key Finding: Marriage trends in recent decades indicate that Americans have become less likely to marry, and the most recent data show that the marriage rate in the United States continues to decline. Of those who do marry, there has been a moderate drop since the 1970s in the percentage of couples who consider their marriages to be “very happy,” but in the past decade, this trend has flattened out.

Divorce

Key Finding: The American divorce rate today is nearly twice that of 1960, but it has declined since hitting the highest point in our history in the early 1980s. The average couple marrying for the first time now has a lifetime probability of divorce or separation somewhere between 40 and 50 percent.

Unmarried Cohabitation

Key Finding: The number of unmarried couples has increased dramatically over the past five decades. Most younger Americans now spend some time living together outside of marriage, and nonmarital cohabitation precedes most new marriages.

Loss of Child Centeredness

Key Finding: The presence of children in America (as measured by fertility rates and the percentage of households with children) has declined significantly since 1960. Other indicators suggest that this decline has reduced the child centeredness of our nation and contributed to the weakening of the institution of marriage.

Fragile Families with Children

Key Finding: The percentage of children who grow up in fragile—typically fatherless—families has grown enormously over the past five decades. This is mainly due to increases in divorce, nonmarital childbearing, and unmarried cohabitation. The trend toward fragile families leveled off in the late 1990s, but the most recent data show a slight increase.

Teen Attitudes about Marriage and Family

Key Finding: The desire of teenagers of both sexes for “a good marriage and family life” has remained high over the past few decades. Boys are almost 10 percentage points less desirous of this than girls, however, and they are also a little more pessimistic about the possibility of a long-term marriage. Both boys and girls have become more accepting of lifestyles that are considered alternatives to marriage, including nonmarital childbearing and unmarried cohabitation.