Kelly Wood and Ethan Bushman married last month, waiting seven years after they met to further their education and careers.
“I felt if I had gotten married at an earlier age, it would have been too young,” said Wood, 29, a nurse in San Francisco. Bushman, 30, is finishing a graduate degree. “Just being older and more established in our careers and our goals in life, that groundwork is letting us enter into marriage as strong as we can.”
Couples in the U.S. are increasingly postponing marriage, a decadeslong pattern exacerbated by financial struggles still facing young adults five years after the end of the deepest recession since the 1930s. The delays are contributing to a lower birth rate and less homeownership, limiting consumer spending.
“Marriage is declining especially among the young,” said William Frey, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “It’s likely that marriages will pick up the pace some when the economy gets on track. But the longer-term trends signal a period when young adulthood will be increasingly thought of as the singles years.”
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Almost half of 24- to 29-year-olds have never married, up from about a quarter in the mid-1980s, according to research presented in August by Census Bureau demographers Laryssa Mykyta and Jonathan Vespa. The median age of first marriage rose to a record high of 29 years for men and 26.6 years for women in 2013, up more than six years since 1959, the agency reported.
Single Americans made up more than half the adult population for the first time since the government began compiling such statistics in 1976, Labor Department data showed Sept. 5. Economist Edward Yardeni cited the data in a note saying there were “implications for our economy, society and politics.”
Economists say there are multiple reasons for the declining marriage rate. One oft-cited cause: the still-recovering labor market, which has put pressure on finances of millennials, the 82 million people born between 1981 and about 2000.
Underemployment and unemployment are “leaving many young adults hesitant to tie the knot in the current economic climate,” said Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. “This retreat from marriage is obviously a drag on fertility, the single-family home market, and sectors such as household products and insurance, given that married families with children spend more on these types of products.”
Rise of ‘Seinfeld nation’
The emergence of a “Seinfeld nation” will shift spending to fast casual food restaurants, “especially those catering to a more affluent-than-average clientele, given savings on family expenses,” said Avery Shenfeld, CIBC World Markets chief economist in Toronto. Seinfeld, a hit sitcom about single friends, aired from 1989 through 1998.
Chipotle Mexican Grill of Denver “would be a good example,” said Shenfeld.
Joblessness for 25- to 34-year-olds fell to 6.2 percent in September from 10.6 percent in October 2009. Yet it’s still higher than total unemployment, which fell to a six-year low of 5.9 percent, and the age group’s 4.9 percent level when the 18- month recession started in December 2007.
Full-time workers in that age range saw income erode to a median of $38,000 in 2012 from $38,760 in 2007, based on National Center for Education Statistics data. Salaries for bachelor’s degree-or-higher grads fell to $49,950 from $52,990 in 2007.
A decline in wages of young men has resulted in fewer good candidates for women to choose as partners, University of Minnesota professor Steven Ruggles found in a paper on marriage, family and economic opportunity in the U.S. since 1850, to be presented this month at a Pennsylvania State University conference.
The proportion of men ages 25 to 29 able to support a family of four at the poverty line dropped from 78 percent in 1970 to 47 percent in 2012, according to Ruggles’s research. Even with the rise of dual-income households, this has had an effect, he said.
“The primary reason for the decline of marriage since 1975 is the decline of economic opportunity, especially for young men and especially compared with their fathers,” Ruggles said in an interview. “I project that marriage will continue to decline for at least 15 years, based on projections of the patterns of young adults.”
Later home buying
Postponing marriage has contributed to a drop in the number of births in the U.S., which has fallen 8.3 percent to 3.96 million in 2013 from 4.32 million in 2007, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. The number of births declined to a record 62.9 per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44.
“Most births still occur within marriage so the birth rate is expected to decline further as age at marriage increases,” said demographer Mark Mather, associate vice president for U.S. programs for the Population Reference Bureau in Washington.
Fewer marriages are leading to less home ownership, said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics Inc. in West Chester, Pa.
While there may be some “pent-up demand for marriages” delayed in the past few years as the economy recovers, “the lower marriage rate does argue for a lower homeownership rate and favors living in cities over suburbs and rural areas,” he said.
Just 35.9 percent of Americans younger than 35 owned a home in the second quarter, compared with 41.3 percent in 2008’s first quarter, the Census Bureau reported in July.
“Marriage and children are a significant prelude to buying a home so the delay does partially explain the low first-time home-buyer participation in the market,” said David Crowe, chief economist at the National Association of Home Builders in Washington, who said he expects the pattern to have a continued effect on home ownership.
Housing executives are making note of the trend. Douglas Yearley, 54, chief executive of homebuilder Toll Brothers, married at 23, which is “pretty much unheard of today,” he said at a May conference with investors. “We need to encourage people to get married younger.”
That’s not likely to happen, according to economist Justin Wolfers, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, who has studied marriage.
Upside: Later unions last
Longer-term trends, including increased labor-force participation among women and greater educational advancement, have contributed to the decline, he said. Couples are smart to delay because studies show that unions formed later are more likely to last, he said.
Forty-three percent of marriages among those ages 23 to 28 ended in divorce, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics study of people born between 1957 and 1964, which cited research by Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson. That dropped to 36 percent for those whose marriages began between ages 29 to 34.
“There has been a small retreat,” he said. “This is marriage delayed, not marriage foregone.”
There’s no urgency to marry, said Charlie Vella, 26, who lives in a Manhattan apartment and is focused on his career in public relations. Because everyone is busy in New York, even dating takes on a secondary importance to work, he said.
“Hopefully I will be married by the time I am 40,” said Vella, who doesn’t have a steady girlfriend and is online with two dating websites. “Everyone here is working fast.”
The cost of dates adds up since he wants to take a woman to “somewhere cool” initially, and a restaurant meal might be $70 for two, he said.
Even the high median cost of weddings – about $18,000 – can be a reason to wait, said Wilcox of the National Marriage Project.
The San Francisco couple, Wood and Bushman, and their families spent about $25,000 on the wedding, which included renting a San Francisco restaurant patio for an evening dinner reception, Wood said.
“I never felt like I put a timeline on it,” she said of their decision to marry, adding that neither was nervous about a lifetime commitment. “At an earlier age it would have been different.” Jeanna Smialek in Washington contributed to this story.