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Around the World, Marriage Is Declining, Singles Are Rising

Why it matters that globally, fewer people are married, more are living single.

All around the world, marriage is in decline and single living is on the rise. Those are some of the conclusions from an important and wide-ranging report, “Families in a Changing World,” released by UN Women this summer.

For evidence, the United Nations report assembled statistics on the percentage of women who reach their late forties without ever having married (it is increasing), the average age at which people marry for the first time, of those who do marry (that is increasing, too), and the proportion of people in their late forties who are divorced or separated (also increasing). Global averages were reported, as well as separate statistics for eight regions of the world. (Examples of countries in the eight regions are listed at the end.)

No statistics were provided on the percentage of adults of all ages who are and are not married. However, when more women are staying single at least until their late forties, when the people who do marry are getting around to it later and later in life, and when more of the people who marry are getting divorced, the overall population of adults is going to include, over time, fewer people who are married and more who are not.

Percent of Women in Their Late 40s (45-49) Who Had Never Been Married, 2010

Worldwide, 4.3 percent of women get to their late forties without ever marrying. Differences by region are striking. In Australia and New Zealand, 1 out of every 7 women in their late forties has never been married. In Central and Southern Asia, the same is true for only about 1 in 100 women.

4.3 percent, worldwide

  • 14.1 percent, Australia and New Zealand
  • 13.4 percent, Latin America and the Caribbean
  • 10.8 percent, Europe and North America
  • 6.1 percent, Sub-Saharan Africa
  • 4.8 percent, Northern Africa and Western Asia
  • 3.7 percent, Oceania (excluding Australia and New Zealand)
  • 2.5 percent, Eastern and South-Eastern Asia
  • 1.1 percent, Central and Southern Asia

In all eight regions, the percent of women who have never married has increased in the two decades between 1990 and 2010. Worldwide, it has increased by 1.2 percentage points, from 3.1 percent to 4.3 percent. The biggest increase occurred in Australia and New Zealand, a remarkable increase of 9.7 percentage points, from just 4.4 percent in 1990 to 14.1 percent in 2010. (Other research shows that in Australia, lifelong single women with no children are doing great.) The smallest increase, of just 0.2 percentage points, occurred in Central and Southern Asia.

Why This Is Important

There are indications that the number of lifelong single people may increase dramatically in the coming years, at least in some regions. For example, the Pew Research Center estimates that by the time today’s young adults in the U.S. reach the age of 50, about 25 percent of them will have been single their whole lives. To have a cohort of 50-year-olds in which 1 out of 4 have never been married will transform the social, political, and economic landscape in ways we cannot yet fully imagine.

Average Age at Which People First Marry (of Those Who Do Marry), 2010

Around the world, men are, on average, 26.6 when they first marry (of those who do marry) and women are 23.3. Adults wait longest to marry in Australia and New Zealand. But even in the region in which newlyweds are younger than anywhere else in the world, Central and Southern Asia, men are in their mid-twenties.

26.6 for men and 23.3 for women, worldwide

  • 31.5 for men and 30 for women, Australia and New Zealand
  • 29.6 for men and 27.2 for women, Europe and Northern America
  • 29.1 for men and 25.4 for women, Northern Africa and Western Asia
  • 28.2 for men and 25 for women, Oceania (excluding Australia and New Zealand)
  • 27.0 for men and 22.1 for women, Sub-Saharan Africa
  • 26.8 for men and 24.5 for women, Eastern and South-Eastern Asia
  • 26.4 for men and 23.6 for women, Latin America and the Caribbean
  • 25.0 for men and 20.8 for women, Central and Southern Asia

In all eight regions, the age at which people first married in 2010 was older than it was 20 years earlier, in 1990. Worldwide, both men and women were 1.4 years older in 2010 than they were in 1990.

It is also interesting that in all eight regions, the men are older than the women when they first marry. Worldwide, the men are an average of 3.3 years older than the women. By region, the age difference varies from a low of 1.5 years in Australia and New Zealand to a high of 4.9 years in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Why This Is Important

The UN report was subtitled, “Progress of the World’s Women 2019-2020,” and focused on the implications of global changes for women. With regard to the worldwide delay of marriage, for those who do marry, the report noted:

“This has enabled women to complete their education, gain a stronger foothold in the labor market, and support themselves financially.”

I think staying single longer offers advantages to men as well as women. For example, both learn to master the kinds of skills that may have been relegated to their spouse if they had married very young and divvied up the tasks in gender-stereotyped ways.

Proportion of People 45-49 Years-Old Who Are Divorced or Separated, 2010

Worldwide, close to 5 percent of women and about 3 percent of men in their late forties were divorced or separated in 2010. Regional differences were striking. In Australia and New Zealand, more than 1 in every 5 women in their late forties were divorced or separated, as were about 16 percent of the men. In Central and Southern Asia, only a little over 1 percent of the women and a little under 1 percent of the men in their late forties were divorced or separated.

4.7 percent of the women and 3.1 percent of the men, worldwide

  • 21.1 percent of the women and 16.3 percent of the men, Australia and New Zealand
  • 13.1 percent of the women and 8.7 percent of the men, Europe and Northern America
  • 9.6 percent of the women and 5.2 percent of the men, Latin America and the Caribbean
  • 6.9 percent of the women and 3.2 percent of the men, Sub-Saharan Africa
  • 5.8 percent of the women and 3.2 percent of the men, Eastern and South-Eastern Asia (excluding China)
  • 4.8 percent of the women and 3 percent of the men, Oceania (excluding Australia and New Zealand)
  • 4.5 percent of the women and 1.5 percent of the men, Northern Africa and Western Asia
  • 1.4 percent of the women and 0.6 percent of the men, Central and Southern Asia

In every region of the world, the divorce rate was higher in 2010 than it was in 1980, though the 2010 rate wasn’t always the highest of the four estimates (for 1980, 1990, 2000, and 2010). Worldwide, the divorce rate increased from 3.3 percent in 1980 to 4.7 percent in 2010 for women, and from 2.1 percent to 3.1 percent for men.

Again, increases in divorce varied a lot by region. In Australia and New Zealand, the rate increased by a remarkable 12.2 percentage points for the women (from 8.9 percent in 1980 to 21.1 percent in 2010) and 8.7 percentage points for the men. In Central and Southern Asia, rates of divorce increased by only 0.5 percentage points for the women and 0.1 for the men.

It is also noteworthy that in every region of the world, there are proportionately more women than men in their late forties who are divorced or separated. That’s probably because men remarry more often than women, and when they do, they tend to marry women from younger age groups.

Why This Is Important

In its focus on women, the UN report describes both positive and negative implications of the increasing rates of divorce. Evidence is from select countries from which data are available.

Positive Implications:

  1. “lower rates of suicide by women”
  2. “a lower incidence of reported domestic violence
  3. “fewer instances of women being murdered by their spouses”

Negative Implications:

“Ending a relationship typically entails far more adverse economic consequences for women than for men. All too often, women lose access to:

  1. “marital assets”
  2. “resources”
  3. “or even child custody”

Cohabitation and Living Apart Together

The report notes that cohabitation has been increasing around the world but does not provide specific statistics. Relevant data were available only from select countries, and even then, only for recent years. There were also inconsistencies within nations, as, for example, when Brazil classified cohabiting women as single in 1940 and 1950 and as married in 1960 and 1970.

Increases in cohabitation account for only a small fraction of the rise of single people. In the U.S., for example, only 13 percent of unmarried Americans are cohabiting.

Even less common than cohabitation is “living apart together,” in which partners “maintain an intimate relationship but live in two separate households.” The report mentions LAT as an example of an emerging family form in some European countries, but the practice is not specific to Europe.

Examples of Countries from the 8 Regions

Europe and Northern America: U.K., U.S., Canada, Germany, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Greece, Russian Federation, Ukraine, Norway, Sweden, Finland, etc.

Sub-Saharan Africa: Ethiopia, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Africa, etc.

Eastern and South-Eastern Asia: China, Japan, Indonesia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Thailand, etc.

Latin America and the Caribbean: Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, Costa Rica, Haiti, Bahamas, etc.

Central and Southern Asia: India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, etc.

Northern Africa and Western Asia: Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, etc.

Oceana, excluding Australia and New Zealand: Fiji, Micronesia, and Papua New Guinea, etc.

Australia and New Zealand: Australia and New Zealand only

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