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For Many Americans, 'Marriage Is An Economic Decision,' Sociologist Says

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For Many Americans, 'Marriage Is An Economic Decision,' Sociologist Says

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For Many Americans, 'Marriage Is An Economic Decision,' Sociologist Says

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

And if you need any convincing that marriage is on the decline in the U.S., just take a look at new census numbers. They show a sharp drop in the married population, and an especially steep decline among young adults, ages 25 to 34. In that age group, the proportion of those never married climbed from 35 percent in 2000 to 46 percent now.

Measured another way, among those young adults in 2000, 55 percent were married. Now, that's 45 percent.

We're going to talk about the implications of those numbers with Andrew Cherlin, sociology professor at Johns Hopkins and author of the book "The Marriage-Go-Round."

Welcome to the program.

Professor ANDREW CHERLIN (Sociology, Johns Hopkins University): Thank you.

BLOCK: And let's put this in some context. If you look back at numbers from the 1960s, among this age group - young people, ages 25 to 34 - more than 80 percent were married. Now we see that under 50 percent. What do you think is behind the slide?

Prof. CHERLIN: For college-educated young adults, this is a story of postponing marriage. They want to finish graduate school, maybe have a couple of years as a law firm associate and then get married. So they're waiting longer and longer until they have the rest of their lives in order before they get married.

For people without a college degree, some of them are postponing, too, but some of them will never make it to the altar. We really will see probably a decline in the lifetime percentages ever marrying for them.

And for everybody, we see an increase in couples living together outside of marriage. They're invisible in these statistics. They count as single people. So we have to remember that some of these so-called single people actually have partners, but they aren't married to them. Again, that wasn't acceptable a few generations ago; now it is.

BLOCK: And maybe have partners and also maybe having children outside the bounds of marriage. This number is really startling to me - 41 percent of births in the United States in 2008 were out of wedlock.

Prof. CHERLIN: Yes. And you know what? For the last 10 or 20 years, almost all the rise in that figure has been to cohabiting couples, not single mothers. It's people - many of them in their 20's or early 30's - who are living with a partner, they don't think they have what it takes economically to get married, but they're not willing to wait to have a kid and so they have one. That's been the big trend, the big change over the last decade or so.

BLOCK: And in recent years, how much do you think the recession is factoring into the decision or the choice not to get married?

Prof. CHERLIN: I think it's very important over the last year or two. These statistics have showed a very sharp drop in marriage, very recently in the last year or two, and that, I am sure, is because people are so insecure about their economic situation that they're not willing to tie the knot.

BLOCK: Apparently, one other thing worth noting here is that even though the percentage of married people is apparently lower than it has been in the time that it's been measured, the odds are huge that at some point, most people will be married.

Prof. CHERLIN: That's right. About 90 percent of people who have a college degree will get there some day. And even among people who are less educated, who may have a lower chance of marrying, I'll bet 60 to 70 percent, maybe even 75 to 80 percent of them get married.

But, you know, in the mid-20th century, everybody got married. If you weren't married, people thought there was something wrong with you. So even a change that says 20 to 25 percent of people might not get married in a certain educational group, even a change that modest is a huge change from the way marriage used to dominate adulthood in the U.S.

BLOCK: Could you say, though, that if you look at the number of people who are living together and having children together outside of wedlock, that they may just be saying, we don't need to be married. We have the security we need. We have the family that we're starting in. We don't need the marriage certificate to get there.

Prof. CHERLIN: And that's just the way many Europeans are. In countries like Sweden or France, there are lots of long-term cohabiting relationships lasting 10 or 20 or 30 years, and people say, why do we need to get married? Well, there is no reason, except so far, in this country, those living together relationships haven't lasted a long time.

We have the shortest duration of our living together relationships of any country. We tend to either breakup or get married quickly. If that changes, if we move more toward the Scandinavian pattern of stable, long-term relationships outside of marriage, well, so be it. That might be fine.

But we're not there yet. That's not what we're doing now.

BLOCK: Andrew Cherlin, thank you very much for talking with us.

Prof. CHERLIN: You're welcome.

BLOCK: Andrew Cherlin is a professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University, and the author of the book "The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and Family Today."

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