Support for marriage and marriage rates themselves have sharply declined among young people in recent years, leading experts to offer various explanations for the troubling trends as well as potential solutions to reverse them.
Data has long pointed toward a sustained drop in marriage rates for every age cohort following the “Silent Generation,” the group of Americans born roughly between the two World Wars. A recent Pew survey found that just 30% of marriage-age Millennials live with a spouse and a child, compared with 70% of those from the Silent Generation.
A survey in June from the Thriving Center of Psychology, meanwhile, found that about 40% of Millennials and GenZers believe marriage is an “outdated tradition,” with 85% responding that marriage “is [not] necessary to have a fulfilled and committed relationship.”
Speaking on the statistics, W. Bradford Wilcox, the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, said bluntly: “It’s bad.”
Wilcox, who for years has been ringing alarm bells about the decline of marriage rates in the U.S, said collapsing marriage numbers are worrisome in no small part because of the economic fallout that can result.
“Marriage is a wealth-generating institution,” he told CNA. “Having kids outside of marriage puts you at risk of family instability and accumulating kids with more than one partner. That starts you up for men, for child support; for women, single parenthood. Both of which are financially exceedingly difficult to navigate.”
“But I’m more concerned about the social and emotional side to all of this,” he continued. “And what we see in the data are that Americans today who are not married are markedly more likely to report that they’re lonely, adrift in terms of meaning, and about half as likely to be very happy with their lives compared [with] their fellow [married] citizens.”
Wilcox said when he began his research into marriage and family stability, his largest concern was for children affected by the changing family demographics.
“As I see the marriage rate tick lower and lower and lower, I’ve become more concerned about adults,” he said. “A lot of adults, more than one-third of young adults today in their 20s, will never marry. This is record demographic territory we’re heading into.”
Mary-Rose Verret, who with her husband, Ryan, founded the marriage renewal and preparation initiative Witness to Love, told CNA that the problem is nearly as acute among Catholics as it is among non-Catholics.
“The number of sacramental marriages in the United States is in freefall and has been in freefall since the 1970s,” she said. “It doesn’t seem to make a difference if they’re Catholic or not Catholic, they’re not getting married or staying married. The Catholic marriage at the five-year mark is only 2% different from the national average.”
Verret said Witness to Love has focused its efforts on a “catechumenal model of marriage formation” that offers a “full-circle” approach to promoting strong marriages in order to counteract the tidal wave of collapsing marriage numbers.
“[We can’t] just be talking about marriage six months before the wedding date,” she said. “What are we doing starting from birth?”
Witness to Love is attempting to answer basic questions about U.S. marriage culture, she said, namely: “Why are people not getting married? Staying married? Going to church with their families?”
“It’s because they’re not seeing holy, healthy, happy marriages being lived out,” she said. “We need to talk more about marriage as a sacrament. What’s difficult about marriage? What’s amazing about marriage? You really need to give them the full picture.”
Wilcox said part of the decline could be attributed to the diminishing prospects of marriage-age men, many of whom are increasingly foregoing higher education and who are seeing fewer job opportunities and lower incomes.
Marsha Garrison, a professor at Brooklyn Law School who has been studying marriage and family structures for decades, offered a similar analysis. “In the United States, marriage and child-bearing behavior are strongly correlated with education,” she told CNA, noting that “most young adults see stable employment as a precondition to marriage.”
Garrison suggested lawmakers could play a role in reversing these declines. “Encouraging education and policies which create stable, well-paying blue collar jobs … could have some impact on marriage rates,” she said, though she argued that “we are unlikely to ever return to the old world in which marriage is near-universal.”
Wilcox also argued that the government could play a role in promoting marriage among working-class couples, including with child-care subsidies that could help ease the economic costs of child-rearing.
Wilcox said the Church could also make a more proactive effort in promoting marriage among faithful Catholics.
“If you’d like to live a life that is meaningful, and reasonably happy, getting married, investing in your spouse and any kids that you have, it’s incredibly important,” he said. “That’s a message that the Church could be much more forceful in bringing to people sitting in the pews.”
Verret also argued that the Church is not doing enough to inculcate a marriage culture among Catholics. The “secular culture,” she said, is broadcasting messages about marriage loudly and often, while the Church is delivering its own message “in such a quiet voice, or is making it so hard to find.”
“If you’re not super-volunteered, going to extra formation, you’re just not going to get it,” she said. Above all, she argued, the Church needs to be discussing marriage at every step of life in order to make it a normalized part of a Catholic upbringing.
“We’re not going to have healthy families if we wait six months before the wedding date to talk about marriages,” she said.