When I started researching my first book Date-onomics, the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey was my most important source of data. I spent weeks poring over national, state and city marital-status data for college-educated Americans. I wanted to understand how lopsided sex ratios in college — ratios which meant there were now one-third more women than men in the post-college dating pool — had affected modern romance.
Obviously, marriage isn’t right for everyone. It may not even be right for all monogamous couples. If two people have been together for 20 years, if they’ve raised a family together, and if they remain committed to one another, it shouldn’t matter whether or not they have a marriage certificate. Problem is, there is no US Census data on monogamy. And at the time I was doing my Date-onomics research, the ACS data on marital status was the best tool at my disposal for evaluating whether lopsided sex ratios were affecting dating culture.
But that was back in 2013. Seven years later, the correlation between marriage and monogamy is starting to look really iffy. Consider a new report, titled “Cohabiting Couples in the United States Are Staying Together Longer But Fewer Are Marrying,” put out by the Population Reference Bureau, a Washington think tank. Utilizing data from the National Survey of Family Growth, the PRB report compares two different generations of young women who were living with their first romantic partners. The study compared young women and their partners in 1983-1988 to young women and their partners in 2006-2013 and then examined whether couples who reported living together initially had married or split up after five years.
Among the 1983-1988 cohort, 42% had gotten married within five years. For the 2006-2013 cohort, only 22% chose to tie the knot.
Based on those numbers, you might conclude the younger generation of cohabitors put a lower priority on keeping their romantic partners. That seems to be PRB’s conclusion: “[T]he findings highlight the instability in many contemporary young adults’ lives and the increasing role cohabitation plays in relationship churning.”
A deeper dive into the numbers hints at something else though. In the 1983-1988 cohort, 23% of the couples were still living together after five years versus 43% in the recent cohort. Add it all up, and what you find is that the percentage of cohabitating couples who were still together after five years (whether married or not) was exactly the same in 1983-1988 as it was in 2006-2013: 65% of the couples were still together after five years.
In other words, couples who move in together are no more likely to break up today than they were 30 years ago. (To be fair, I do believe the messy state of modern dating — of online dating, in particular — makes it harder for today’s singles to find a partner worthy of moving in with. It’s a topic I discuss in my new book, Make Your Move, due out in February.)
Question is, why are couples who already live together suddenly eschewing marriage? The answer, I suspect, is mostly about economics.
According to a 2018 Federal Reserve study, Millennials earn less than their parents or grandparents did at the same age (with respective incomes adjusted for inflation). Millennials “have lower real incomes,” according to the Fed report, “than members of earlier generations when they were at similar ages, and millennials also appear to have accumulated fewer assets.” Another reason Millennials are less well off financially is because they are spending a higher percentage of their incomes on housing, health care and education — an explanation that will come as zero shock to most Millennials reading this.
One could argue that given the many tax benefits associated with marriage, cash-strapped cohabitors should have a financial incentive to get married. But this ignores marriage’s giant up-front cost: the price of a wedding.
Wedding costs have skyrocketed over the past 40 years, as wedding adviser Meg Keene shows in a 2017 BuzzFeed article. When Keene’s own parents were married in 1974, their wedding cost $2,000 — which translates to about $10,000 in today’s dollars. Thing is, even $10,000 is a pittance compared to what it would actually cost today to plan a wedding identical to her parents’.
“[B]y today’s standards, my parents’ wedding was BEYOND,” Keene wrote. “They got married in San Francisco’s reigning massive church, Grace Cathedral, three days after Christmas. They had a whopping 300 people in attendance, and a cocktail reception at the swanky Marine’s Memorial Club. Their cake alone was so big that when we tried to re-create their wedding, we couldn’t even find a baker that still made cakes that large.”
Keene interviewed wedding vendors about what it would cost to hold a comparable wedding in San Francisco today. The total bill: $47,000.
Nobody is obligated spend $47,000 to get married, of course. You can get hitched for $25 at many town halls or city courthouses. My own local mayor has been performing marriage ceremonies for free to help out couples whose wedding plans were upended by COVID-19.
Nevertheless, our society does place a high cultural value on weddings and wedding celebrations, and that’s why relatively few couples cheap out on them. In 2019, the average cost of a wedding was $33,900, according to CNBC.
“People are seeing marriage as something that can only be achieved once you can, quote, ‘afford to give yourself the wedding of your dreams,'” Keli Goff, a journalist who has written about declining marriage rates, tells National Public Radio. “And I think that’s a real tragedy. I really do. Because that’s not what marriage is about. It’s not about the big party, the big expensive party.”
This, I believe, is the single biggest reason why fewer young couples are getting married. They simply cannot afford to. Many young people are saddled with $25,000 or more in college debt. Others are working in the gig economy, which means they pay for their own health insurance. Even for a couple making $150,000 a year combined, spending $30,000 on wedding could seem like a foolish expense.
What do you think? Am I wrong about the cost of weddings discouraging couples from getting married? Let me know what other factors you think are at play.