According to The New York Times’ Claire Cain Miller, the conventional wisdom that half of all marriages end in divorce and that the divorce rates are climbing is wrong — divorce peaked in the 1970s and 1980s, and has dropped ever since.
“It is no longer true that the divorce rate is rising, or that half of all marriages end in divorce,” Miller wrote. “It has not been for some time. Despite hand-wringing about the institution of marriage, marriages in this country are stronger today than they have been in a long time.”
The drop started in the 1990s. About 70 percent of couples who got married in the 1990s made it to their 15th anniversary, which is 5 percent higher than the amount of couples who made it to the same anniversary in the 1970s and 1980s, Miller wrote. The trend is expected to continue into the 2000s. “If current trends continue, nearly two-thirds of marriages will never involve a divorce,” Miller wrote.
But there exists statistical data that completely contradicts Miller’s conclusion. A study by Sheela Kennedy and Steven Ruggles Breaking Up is Hard to Count concludes just the opposite.
Moreover, the Miller article is incomplete. The article does not take into account divorce in the retirement years since the married couple who according to Miller are not going to divorce as much as the generation before them, have not yet reached the age at which they will likely divorce. People are divorcing at the same rate as their parents, but at much older ages. Senior divorces (those who divorce when they are over age 65) are on the rise, and as the people who married in the 1990’s and 2000’s reach their retirement years, it is expected that half will eventually divorce. In other words it is too soon to tell if younger people will stay married their whole life. They may stay married longer, but will eventually divorce at the same 50% rate.
The article points out that some of the decline can easily be attributed to a decline in the number of people who are getting married, a decline that is higher among groups that also divorce at a higher rate.
Regardless of what Miller suggests, marriage is in shambles because people don’t want to get married anymore. By missing this larger picture, Miller ends up adding single parents—who after all have a null chance of divorce—to good news numbers about marital stability. Sheela Kennedy and Steven Ruggles from the Population Center at the University of Minnesota try to take into account the new reality in a recent paper. Their findings are sobering: “because cohabitation makes up a rapidly growing percentage of all unions,” they write, it has “an increasing impact on overall union instability.” And by accepting that marriage and children are unrelated, she can ignore the biggest problem with this rising instability. Experts have shown us in a virtual library of research papers that the children of single parents are at greater risk of everything from poverty to school failure to imprisonment. Their large numbers will almost surely help perpetuate inequality, poverty, and immobility.
“Despite hand-wringing about the institution of marriage, marriages in this country are stronger today than they have been in a long time,” Miller writes. As it happens, hand-wringing is an appropriate response to the state of marriage today.