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Michael Swartz / Sep. 28, 2018

Taking Vows — and Meaning It

The divorce rate is way down and Millennials should get a lot of the credit.

Say what you will about the Millennials — and we have — they seem to have at least one redeeming quality: Once they get married, they have been (so far) staying that way.

This is according to University of Maryland sociology professor Philip N. Cohen, who noted in his recent research paper on “The Coming Divorce Decline” that marriage is becoming “more selective, and more stable, even as attitudes toward divorce are becoming more permissive, and cohabitation has grown less stable.” Cohen’s research found that divorce rates declined a remarkable 18% between 2008 and 2016, and even adjusting for an aging population (divorce rates decrease as couples age) the difference was still statistically significant enough to lead to Cohen’s assertion.

Prevailing analysis of Cohen’s research has picked out two good reasons for this trend. First of all, Millennials are postponing marriage until they are more established, have better jobs, and so forth. Obviously some portion of this factor stems from the economic reality of that 2008-16 era, which encompasses most of the Great Recession. People who are once bitten by job loss may be twice shy about making lifetime commitments, but that also means those getting married are more mature and have learned that life is more than participation trophies.

But on the flip side, you have those on the lower end of the social ladder who are eschewing marriage altogether. “Marriage is more and more an achievement of status, rather than something that people do regardless of how they’re doing,” continued Cohen. It seems that marriage comes in most cases after a period of cohabitation, which separates prospective couples into two groups: those who get married are those who decide they finally have the means to make a more permanent go of it, even if it’s considered to be a “transactional marriage,” as Virginia Commonwealth University assistant professor of sociology Victor Tan Chen argued last year in The Atlantic. He noted that marriage rates have plummeted dramatically among middle-aged women without a bachelor’s degree over the last 40 years, to a point where just over half that cohort is married compared to three-quarters of those with a degree.

More prominent are those who can’t pull the trigger on commitment because of the worry about the cost of divorce — especially for men. “I grew up during that period [when divorce rates surged] and still recall any number of guys from my age group who swore off the idea of getting hitched,” wrote Jazz Shaw at Hot Air, “because they’d seen too many guys before them go from a house in the suburbs with a wife and two kids to a crappy apartment and alimony payments that sucked up more than half of their income.”

Since the divorce rate peaked in the early 1980s and had remained high until the last decade, Shaw’s experience was also the reality in which Millennials lived as kids. Almost every one of them have been touched by divorce and its strain on kids, whether observing friends or relatives being drawn through the emotional wringer of separation, divorce, and remarriage or living through it themselves. Seeing this, it’s no wonder they want to do something different and get it right. “The characteristics of young married couples today signal a sustained [divorce rate] decline in the coming years,” pronounced fellow sociology professor Susan Brown of Bowling Green State University.

This theory of lasting marriage may get a bit of a test in the near future. With the better economy of late, though, it’s possible more of those who were cohabitating for a long period may finally decide to make things legal, so to speak. Whether that brings the divorce rate back up is hard to say, but hopefully Millennials have learned through painful experience that they should look before they leap so they can keep the commitments they make.

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