For Better Or Worse (But Mostly Worse)

For Better Or Worse (But Mostly Worse)

Advancements in Web 2.0 technology and the rising popularity of online dating should make it easier now – more than ever – to find “The One.”  So why, ConvergEx’s Nick Colas asks, is the U.S. marriage rate still declining when technology is making the process of finding a mate so much more convenient and efficient? For one, cohabitation (both before marriage and instead of marriage) is increasingly popular. Also, there’s the urbanization trend which yields an influx of young, single professionals into major cities across the country; they’re apparently more focused on career than family. However, as Colas continues, falling marriage rates go hand-in-hand with a host of socio-economic issues, and the problem is exacerbated in those with lower levels of educational attainment. A continuation of this trend would undoubtedly have negative implications for society as a whole and further enhance the gap between rich and poor.

Via ConvergEx’s Nick Colas,

If you’re in the market for a spouse, consider this: Online dating could save you $6,400 in the long run versus the traditional computer-unaided route.  The typical courtship for marriages that begin offline is 42 weeks, or two years longer than the average 18-week courtship for marriages that begin online, according to, which compiled various data from Reuters, PC World and the Washington Post..  At a conservative estimate of one date per week and a cost of $130 per date – $100 for a meal and drinks at a nice restaurant, plus $30 for two movie tickets and popcorn – the dating phase prior to an offline marriage runs up a $23,660 tab.  The average dating site customer spends just $239 a year for online memberships, which more than pays for itself to the tune of $12,803 in cost savings from fewer dates.  Assuming you go Dutch, each party saves a touch over $6,400 in choosing the online route to marital bliss.

Of course, there are some horrors associated with online dating – like the fact that a woman’s online desirability peaks at the ripe age of 21 or that 6% of women set their standards at finding simply “any man I can get” (again, courtesy of the compilation of data).  But even so, you might reasonably expect that the technological advances that gave rise to the popularity of online dating would translate to a growing number of marriages in the United States.  After all, it’s theoretically easier now than ever to find a mate, not to mention more cost effective.  Yet the percentage of married adults is still in structural decline.  In 2012, an all-time low of 50.5% of American adults ages 18 and up were married.  That’s down from 57.4% in 2000 and a peak of 72.2% in the 1960s (see Chart 1 following the text).  So what’s the story?   Why is marriage still a falling trend despite the growing popularity of online match-making websites?

First, cohabitation (both before marriage and instead of marriage) is increasingly popular.  According to the most recently available data from the Center for Disease Control (CDC), cohabitation was the first romantic union (meaning either living with a partner without being married or simply getting married) for 48% of women aged 15 through 44 from 2006 to 2010.  This was up from 43% in 2002 and 34% in 1995.  Meanwhile, marriage as a first romantic union declined in popularity; 39% of first romantic unions were marriages in 1995, versus 30% in 2002 and 23% from 2006 to 2010 (refer to Chart 2).  The latest data from private research company Demographic Intelligence shows that 7.5 million couples lived together but were not married in 2010, which marked a 13% increase in just one year.

One explanation for this growth in cohabitation is the spike in divorce rates in the 1970s and 1980s.  The divorce rate peaked in 1979 and 1981 at 5.3 divorces per 1,000 people living in the U.S. (see Chart 3).  This is right around the time when the parents of the current generation of 20-somethings and 30-somethings would have had children, so perhaps seeing their parents and/or friends’ parents go through a divorce has made today’s young people more cautious when it comes to finding a mate.  Today, the divorce rate has settled somewhat around 3.5 per 1,000 population; the most logical explanation seems to be quite simply the decline in marriages.

Second, urbanization remains a growing trend and is responsible for the influx of young, predominately single professionals into major cities across the country.  Anecdotal data shows that much of this 20-something cohort is primarily focused on their careers rather than starting a family.  Indeed, the average age at first marriage for men and women is 28.6 and 26.6, respectively, compared to 25.2 and 22.5 three decades ago, according to the Census Bureau.  Adding to this trend has been the growing number of women in the labor force over the past several decades.  No longer as reliant on a husband as a source of income, women, too, are delaying the white-picket-fence stage of life in favor of establishing a career. 

Lastly, there’s the unproductive side of technology when it comes to love and marriage.  Location-based smartphone applications (such as Tinder) that allow you to instantly find other singles in your area – or even in the same bar – encourage instant gratification and nonexclusive relationships.  Technology has also given rise to online dating sites for married people seeking other married people (such as Ashley Madison) which probably don’t do anything constructive for the rate of productive, healthy marriages. 

Falling marriage rates go hand-in-hand with a host of socio-economic issues, so a decline in the popularity of marriage is quite important from an economic standpoint.  A drop in marriages has resulted in a rise in the out-of-wedlock birth rate – in 2011, 40.7% of all U.S. live births were to unmarried women.  Data from the Pew Research Center reveals that 35% of children live in single-parent homes and that 71% of poor families (those in the lowest quintile by income) lack married parents.  Additionally, the poverty rate for single-parent households in which a woman is the head of household is roughly five times that of traditional, two-parent households.

Adding to the problem is the fact that marriage rates are declining faster among those with lower levels of educational attainment – and therefore lower levels of income, as education is typically correlated with financial resources .  In 1970, 88% of college-educated men were married, compared with 85% of men who had not received a college degree.  For women the split was 82% and 83%, and in other words it didn’t appear that educational attainment was correlated with marriage.  However, by 2010 69% of adults with a college degree were married, versus just 56% of those without a college degree.  Furthermore, even among adults whose first romantic union is cohabitation, those with college degrees are much more likely to turn the cohabitation into marriage – 53% versus 39% for those with a high school diploma (refer to Chart 4).
Declining marriage rates among those with lower levels of educational attainment is a warning sign that is worth watching, especially if the trend continues.  But we’ll end this note with two bits of encouraging news.  First, the sheer number of newly married adults increased in 2012, climbing to 4.32 million from 4.21 million the prior year.  America’s aging population is undoubtedly weighing on the overall marriage rate, so it’s somewhat comforting to see a small rise in total marriages (see Chart 5).  Also, the sheer number of Americans getting divorced increased in 2012 for a third consecutive year.  Though troublesome from a societal standpoint, from an economic perspective this indicates that perhaps the economy has recovered sufficiently enough for warring spouses to finally be comfortable going their separate ways.

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