The U.S. Divorce Rate Plummets

November 23, 2016

Bloomberg reports that the U.S. divorce rate has fallen for the third straight year to 16.9 divorces per 1,000 married women, a 35-year low. And the rate is dropping quickly, from 17.6 just a year ago. Divorce rose steeply during the 1970s, in concert with the Women’s Movement, topping out at 22.8 divorces per 1,000 married women, but has been declining ever since.

At the same time marriage is up, at 32.3 marriages per 1,000 women. That’s the highest rate since 2009. Marriage fell sharply during the 70s as well, from 76.5 in 1970 to about 60 in 1980.

US marriage and divorce rates

Several factors are likely playing a role in the decline of divorce:

Age at Marriage

  • Boomers have always divorced at higher rates, and continue to do so. Subsequent generations are divorcing at far lower rates.
  • There is a wealth of information demonstrating that marrying at 25 at the earliest significantly reduces the risk of divorce.
  • Increasingly people marry someone close to their own age. Age difference between spouses is associated with higher divorce rates.
  • Delaying marriage has increased the number of cohabiting couples, whose breakups are not recorded.

number of couples who live together

Changing Gender Roles

A recent Harvard study found that the key predictor of divorce is a husband’s employment status. Professor Alexandra Killewald found that for the last 40 years, men who weren’t employed full-time were a third more likely to get divorced. In contrast, she found that neither financial strains nor ease of divorce had a significant effect.

“Killewald had to untangle a couple’s working life—employment status, willingness to do housework—from their finances to see which of the two was the greater factor in divorce. She used a larger set of census data to predict wives’ economic dependence on their marriages—how much they would lose if they got divorced.

Her conclusion: The couples’ income and the wives’ economic independence didn’t correlate with a higher risk of divorce.”

While women have successfully embraced and succeeded in their careers since the 1970s, they clearly prefer not to be the primary breadwinner in the family.

“The late 1970s were really a time of change in what women expected for their careers,” Killewald said. What hasn’t changed nearly as much is the role men are supposed to play as husbands.

Current economic trends don’t look favorable in this regard. As automation increases, women stand to gain far more than men due to their higher levels of emotional intelligence and cooperation skills.

A group of MIT studies found that workplace groups are smarter when women are included, because women are generally better than men at understanding what their colleagues are really thinking. As industry becomes more reliant on human interaction, women will play an increasingly important role.

“[These studies] represent evidence suggesting that the male-female gender wage gap will not only close but also invert. It would surprise me if, in a generation, women aren’t earning more than men across many mainstream industries.

First, women earn the majority of bachelor’s degrees, Master’s degrees, and Ph.D’s. The historical relationship between higher education and earnings is simple: Those who learn more earn more. This advantage will continue to enrich women in the labor force.

Second, if you look at the direction of job growth, brawny, muscly jobs like construction and manufacturing are in structural decline, while the fastest growing jobs, both at the low-pay end and in the white-collar world, require softer skills where men have no physical advantage.

Third, men might have innate disadvantages in collaborative work settings, like the emotional illiteracy alluded to in these studies.”

This video by Atlantic Magazine popped up in my Facebook feed today, and explains it quite well:

It’s easy to see why assortative mating has become the norm – educated women with promising career prospects want to ensure that they marry men who will be able to thrive in the changing economy. Unfortunately, this will continue to exacerbate the wealth gap.

In the short-term, the news on marriage and the divorce rate is reassuring. But long-term threats loom that promise to continue to shake up gender dynamics – and that’s probably not going to be good for marriage as an institution.