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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. An institution many Americans place at the center of their lives is becoming less common. Fewer Americans are getting married.

INSKEEP: A new report out today finds the share of adults who are married has dropped to the lowest point on record: just 51 percent. If this trend continues, the institution will soon lose its majority status in American life.

NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports on what this means, and why it's happening.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Hard times are hard on love. The Pew Research Center finds new marriages dropped a sharp 5 percent last year. That's likely related to the bad economy. But Pew senior writer D'Vera Cohn says it fits with a larger trend.

D'VERA COHN: The most dramatic statistics, to me, are when you look at the share of younger adults who are married now compared with in the past. That's really been where you've seen the big decline.

LUDDEN: Half a century ago, nearly 60 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds were married; today, just 20 percent. But the Pew report finds fewer married people across age groups. In their place: more singles; single parents; couples living together, even having children without marrying. But the driving force in the dropping marriage rate: People who do tie the knot are waiting longer than ever.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'LL BE THERE FOR YOU")

THE REMBRANDTS: (Singing) So no one told you life was gonna be this way...

LUDDEN: Through the '90s, the rise of single 20-somethings was glorified in the weekly adventures of Monica, Rachel, Phoebe, Ross, Chandler and Joey.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FRIENDS")

MATT LEBLANC: (as Joey) Listen, sorry I didn't stop by last night. I had a date.

MATTHEW PERRY: (as Chandler) Uh, Joe, when it's 1 o'clock in the morning and you don't come by, that's OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LUDDEN: Now, the Pew report finds the median age when people finally walk down the aisle is at an all-time high: 26 for women, nearly 29 for men.

STEPHANIE COONTZ: Well, it does not mean that marriage is dead.

LUDDEN: Stephanie Coontz is a historian on family life at Evergreen State College in Washington state. She says many of those 20-somethings will eventually tie the knot - like Monica and Chandler on "Friends." The Pew report finds a robust 72 percent of Americans have been married at some point.

COONTZ: But what it does bring home to us is that we can no longer pretend that marriage is the central organizing principal of society. What it really means for us is that we have to take account of the many, many social networks and relationships that people cycle through - marriage being just one of them.

LUDDEN: Cohn, of the Pew Center, says you already see this: school forms with separate address blocks for parent one and parent two, employers asked about benefits for unmarried partners. Yet even as marriage declines, Cohn says Americans still revere it.

COONTZ: On the one hand, we had nearly 40 percent of Americans tell us that they think marriage is becoming obsolete. On the other hand, when you ask people who aren't married, would you like to get married? they say, yes.

LUDDEN: Cohn says today's report also points to a troubling marriage gap: The rich get hitched; the working class, not as much. Historian Coontz says it's yet another consequence of the nation's widening economic inequality. Wages for those without a college degree have stagnated, weakening their power in the marriage market.

COONTZ: The sort of incentive to get married - because you could rely on a man whose real wages would continue to rise, who would get a pension at the end of it - that incentive has been undermined as well.

LUDDEN: On the other hand, for those who do marry, there's an upside to waiting - at least for women. Coontz says for every year a woman delays marriage into her early 30s, she reduces her risk of divorce.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.

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