With all the talk of declining morals with each generation, there is one thing millennials seem to do better than their elders. When they get married, they stay married. There’s been a dramatic drop in divorce rates for the country’s youngest adults since 2008 and an 18 percent drop in the overall divorce rate from 2008 to 2016. The decrease in the divorce rate is largely attributable to Millennials and—to a lesser degree—Generation Xers either staying married or cohabitating outside marriage.
University of Maryland professor and sociologist Philip Cohen, who conducted the groundbreaking study and paper, The Coming Divorce Decline, writes “The overall drop is driven entirely by younger women.” The prevalence for divorce for people under 45 appears to level off, but continues to rise for people over age 45. Cohen believes the decrease means the divorce rate will continue to trend downward in coming years. The average age for couples going through their first divorce has increased to age 30.
Millennials, commonly considered babies born from 1980 to the late 1990s, are roughly between the ages of 18 and 38 now. Gen Xers, roughly between the ages of 39 and 54, are also credited with staying married.
By contrast, baby boomers are divorcing at much higher rates than previous generations. The divorce rate tripled for people over the age of 65 from 1990 to 2015, according to Bowling Green’s National Center for Family and Marriage Research.
In this age of swiping right, 24-hour social media and selfies, younger married couples appear to be staying together even though divorce is more readily accepted and cohabitation prior to or instead of marriage is more readily accepted.
There are several factors behind the decline. People are getting married later in life and are more educated when they get married. Arguably, millennials are more selective in who they marry because there’s less pressure on them to get married in their early 20s. In 2016, the median marrying age was 29.5 for men and 27.4 for women—the highest it’s ever been.
Married women are more likely to have bachelor’s degrees or higher, less likely to be under age 25, and less likely to have children from previous marriages. For the first time, in the last couple of decades, married women are more likely to have college degrees than women who are not married. Seventy-five percent of women in their early 40s with bachelor’s degrees are married, while only half of women with a high school degree or less are married in their early 40s.
Cohen’s study indicates that couples are waiting until they’re more economically stable to marry while less well-off Americans may choose not to marry at all. He writes, “The trends described here represent … a system in which marriage is rarer and more stable, than it was in the past, representing an increasingly central component of the structure of social inequality.”
In line with Cohen’s conclusion, the marriage gap can be credited, in part, to declining marriage rates among the least educated according to a previous study done by the Brookings Institute in 2016.
The Brookings Institute study, authored by Richard V. Reaves, Isabel V. Sawhill and Eleanor Krause, found that marriage rates among college educated 30-year-olds was higher than 30-year-olds without a college degree for the first time. The study also found that the most educated women are the most likely to be married. The Brookings Institute authors’ article about the study explained “In the past, highly-educated women faced an unenviable choice between accepting a patriarchal marriage or forgoing marriage and children entirely. Now they are able to raise their children within a stable marriage without compromising their independence. It looks then as though women’s independence hasn’t led to a rejection of the matrimonial institution, as much as its transformation.”
What can we conclude from these studies? While younger, more educated Americans are more likely to live up to their vows of “ ’til death do us part,” marriage is also becoming a more exclusive institution. Time will tell if the divorce rate plateaus, continues to decline or goes back up.
Christine P. Leatherberry is one of the Top 100 Up-and-Coming Attorneys in Texas, one of the Top 50 Up-and-Coming Women Attorneys in Texas for the last two years, and was named to Texas Rising Stars the past five years. She is an attorney at Connatser Family Law in Uptown Dallas. Contact her at email@example.com.