Is Marriage Obsolete?

New research suggests that marriage is on its way out as relationships continue to evolve beyond traditional gender roles and family models. Here, we explore six of the study’s key findings for singles.

By Dave Singleton

early four in ten Americans think marriage is becoming obsolete. What?! Taken from a new nationwide Pew Research Center survey entitled The Decline of Marriage and Rise of New Families (conducted in association with Time and complemented by demographic and economic data from the U.S. Census Bureau), this statistic
I don’t think they’re genuinely becoming obsolete.
shows an 11 percent spike since Time asked the same question of its readers in 1978. That new research figure is sending a few shockwaves through the country, especially among conservative groups who are up in arms over what they perceive to be the culprits; namely, the rise in the number of unmarried couples living together, single mothers, and same-sex relationships.

Are traditional marriages and nuclear families a thing of the past?
Clearly, there’s been a shift in attitudes about these cultural institutions, but overall, I don’t think they’re genuinely becoming obsolete. Over the past couple of generations, there’s been a relationship revolution going on. The 1950s model of American life — marriage in your early twenties followed by children, differences in socioeconomic status between men and women — has given way to newer and evolving ways of dating, mating and socializing in general.

If you take a look at current pop culture trends, you’ll see that we’re actually more in love with relationships than ever before. Ratings for TV shows like The Bachelor, Say Yes to the Dress, and Modern Family show that our love for relationships of every variety is going strong. We’re just less committed to how we make them happen and who gets to participate in the process. “If marriage is viewed as increasingly obsolete, it’s because we’re appreciating a wider range of options,” says Brian Powell, Professor of Sociology at Indiana University and coauthor of Counted Out: Same-sex Relations And Americans’ Definitions Of Family. “This doesn’t indicate a vote against marriage; more likely, it’s a vote for the diversity of family forms out there, even those without the legal imprimatur of marriage.”

But what does this all mean for the millions out there dating and relating? I pored over the research to bring to light the six survey implications that matter most for singles.

1. Ninety-five percent of younger respondents say I “still” do to marriage
Despite the rising figures for cohabitation and divorce, the new study shows that 44 percent of Americans under 30 believe marriage is heading for extinction, while only five percent of respondents in that same age group don’t want to get hitched. So, how do you wrap your mind around these two seemingly contradictory findings? A theory proposed by David Popenoe, a former Rutgers sociology professor and co-director of the National Marriage Project, is that the ones who called marriage “obsolete” may be voicing their own fears rather than expressing a genuine wish to see the institution disappear. Others think it may just be a case of semantics. The basics of committed relationships are solid, but the formalities involved could become increasingly less common. “Most Americans today take the marital relationship more seriously than ever before, expecting more intimacy, fairness and mutual respect,” says Stephanie Coontz, Director of Research and Public Education for the Council on Contemporary Families and author of A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s.

2. There’s a difference between “needing” and “wanting” to be married
We still want to get married, obviously… but maybe the bigger implication from the Pew Center’s survey is that we just don’t need it as much as we once did. In purely practical terms, marriage today is not like it was for previous generations. Socially, spiritually and symbolically, how we view it has changed greatly, and that factors into the results. “The truth is that we no longer feel that the marital institution is essential for [someone’s] social respectability or personal well-being,” says Coontz. “For the most part, that’s good news for singles. It means you can take your time making up your mind about whether or not you want to marry without being stigmatized the way singles were back in the 1960s. And the longer you take, the better your chances of forming a lasting partnership.”

3. When it comes to marriage views, money and education matter
Marriage remains the norm for adults with college educations and good incomes, but it’s now markedly less prevalent among poorer and less educated individuals. Why? It turns out we are much more into getting married if we can afford it —
The median age for first marriages in the U.S. is at its highest point ever.
and maybe that’s a sign of the times. Getting married during a recession means not only considering whether you have enough money for the wedding and other associated costs, but also any concerns you might have about taking on a spouse’s debt. The survey found that people whose education ended with a high school diploma (or less) are just as likely to say they’d like to marry as those with college degrees, but the first group placed a higher premium on financial stability as one of the most important reasons to do so than the latter did (38 percent versus 21 percent, respectively).

4. We’re waiting longer to get hitched, but what’s so bad about that?
Census data shows that young people are waiting to marry until they’re a few years older nowadays. The median age for first marriages in the U.S. is at its highest point ever. For women, it’s 26.1 years of age, and for men, it’s 28.2. On top of that, for the first time in half a century, unmarried people between the ages of 25 and 34 outnumber their married counterparts in the same age range. But here’s good news for all the twenty-somethings who feel like they’re never going to meet the right mate and settle down: younger people are waiting until they’re better educated, better off financially, and more mature first. They’ve seen their parents’ generation divorce at unprecedented rates (approximately 50 percent), and frankly, they don’t want that to happen to them. Maybe they just want to get it right by taking their time, and if you ask me, that’s cause for celebration. It actually shows reverence for marriage, not disdain.

5. Being in a less traditional relationship does not equal less happiness
Everyone talks about the “good old days.” In marriage terms, we think of role models such as Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, who were the perfect 1950s couple. Here’s a wild notion implied by the research: maybe couples today are actually happier. Yes, there’ve been dramatic changes to the way couples live now — for example, more cohabitation vs. marriage — but it’s clear that the importance of family still remains strong. Seventy-six percent of adults claim that their family is the most important thing to them (regardless of how it’s structured), 75 percent say they are “very satisfied” with their family life, and more than eight in 10 say the family they live in now is as close as (45 percent) or closer than (40 percent) the family in which they were raised. More than half of the people living with someone (as opposed to being married) report that they have a better relationship with their romantic partners than their parents did when they were growing up. Marriage might be viewed as an increasingly obsolete tradition, but it’s clear that marriage, relationships and family are ultimately still quite satisfying.

6. Feelings about marriage are relative
It’s hard to evaluate the findings of this survey without assessing the role that timing plays in shaping people’s views. Maybe people are just more cynical in general these days. Consider how the study’s marriage findings compare with other key areas of life: more Americans (67 percent) remain optimistic about marriage than about the educational system (50 percent), economy (46 percent) or human morality (41 percent). Think about that for a minute; it means we’re actually more upbeat about marriage than we are about our chances of educating our kids, making a decent living, or being a good person. When it comes to love, obsolescence is clearly in the eye of the beholder. Based on this research, I’d say there’s plenty of validation and support for singles looking to create meaningful relationships on their own terms — including, but not limited to, the ever-revered tradition of marriage.

Dave Singleton, an award-winning writer and columnist for since 2003, is the author of two books on dating and relationships. Send your dating questions and comments to him at
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