If marriage were an investable asset, now would be a great time to sell. The stock of marriage has declined for decades and its future looks even worse. By every available measure, matrimonial unions are shrinking in importance. A future without marriage would be a profound change—not necessarily for the worse.
Signs of decline
To evolutionary psychologists and anthropologists, marriage is primarily a facility for uniting families in order to raise children. In developed countries, very few children are produced— substantially fewer than the two plus needed to keep the population from declining (1). If a widget factory produces fewer widgets, it is fair to say that the factory is in trouble.
Young people are marrying later. According to UN data (2), the average age of marriage for women rose from 23 in 1975 to 29 in 2005 for 221 countries and territories whereas bridegrooms went from 27 to 32 years. If you can put something off for six years, it may not be very urgent, or important.
More young women are passing on marriage. The unmarried fraction of the female population in the U.S. aged 40-44 increased from 10 percent to 20 percent in the past two decades (3). If women are twice as likely to skip it, it must seem less critical.
Crude marriage rates in Europe are only around half what they were in 1970 (7.9 vs. 4.4 in 2010, 4). Those who do marry are more likely to divorce and the crude divorce rate doubled since 1970 (1.9 in 2009 versus 1.0 in 1970).
Given that marriage really is a reproductive system, the fact that women spend less time married helps explain why contemporary fertility is so low in these countries. Of course men spend less time married as well but women are more important as a limiting factor in reproduction because their reproductive lives are shorter. So why are modern women less enthusiastic about marriage?
Why young women do not want to marry
This problem is a focus for population scholars who see low fertility having an apocalyptic effect on our society, known as demographic winter (1). One reason that young women reject marriage is that they are already far too busy with careers, and other responsibilities, such as caring for elderly parents. If so, they are unwilling to assume a second shift as homemakers, or a third as mothers of young children.
All successful societies of the past were built around family networks in which the nuclear family served as a basic building block. That does not mean that a successful society might not be organized in different ways in future. It does, however, mean that we need to be cautious about the harmful potential consequence of such a radical departure from all earlier history.
Does it really matter if young people stop marrying?
The central issue here is fertility, or lack of it. Without marriage, children can still be raised, of course and if current trends continue, the majority of children will soon be born out of wedlock as is currently the case in several European countries that enjoy exceptional child well-being.
The problem is that single mothers have substantially lower fertility than married women, possibly reflecting the very great expense of raising children today due to inflation in medical costs, education, housing, and other child-related expenses. Low fertility is a major problem for future generations far worse than the current population boom that is expected to peter out, and reverse well before the end of this century.
Low fertility produces progressive aging of the population, rising dependency ratios, economic decline, and the ultimate collapse of complex societies when the expense of maintaining them overwhelms the capacity of the population to pay those expenses (5). At some point, societies of the future will be forced to come up with creative ways of boosting fertility—or go out of business.
Otherwise, a decline in marriage does not have to be bad provided that children are adequately supported as happens in advanced social democracies. It is true that all successful societies of the past had matrimony. Perhaps societies of the future will be the first viable exception.
1. Kotkin, J. (2012). The rise of post-familialism. Singapore: Civil Service College. http://www.cscollege.gov.sg/Knowledge/Pages/The-Rise-of-Post-Familialism...
2. United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. World marriage data 2012. accessed at: http://www.un.org [check website]
3. Bianchi, S. M. (2011). Changing families, changing workplaces. Future of Children, 21, 15-36.
4. Eurostat (2011, 2012). Marriage and divorce statistics. Accessed at: http://epp.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/statistics_explained/index.php/Marriage... on 7/17 2013.
5. Tainter, J. A. (1990). The collapse of complex societies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.