New Research Shows That Millennials Are Better at Marriage—But Only an Increasingly Select Few Are Tying the Knot

A happy couple dances in kitchen
Millennial marriages are stronger, but the institution is becoming increasingly exclusive. monkeybusinessimages/Thinkstock

Serial killer millennials are back at it again. Their newest victim: divorce. According to a recent analysis by University of Maryland sociology professor Phillip Cohen, the overall divorce rate in the U.S. declined by 18 percent between 2008 and 2016. Even after controlling for factors such as age and other demographic shifts, Cohen still found an 8 percent decline in the divorce rate. That means that marriages today must be more stable than they’ve been in the past, but why? Cohen chalks the shift mostly up to millennials, who seem to be doing marriage differently (i.e. more successfully) than their divorce-happy Boomer elders. However, while the increasing longevity of millennial marriages should be a bright spot in an otherwise dismal slate of statistics about a generation beleaguered by debt, the underlying factors causing the divorce rate to plummet paint another picture: One where a stable family life is becoming increasingly elusive for the poor and less educated.

Cohen writes that plunging divorce rates for millennials can partially be explained by the “increasingly selective nature of marriage … and the greater stability of the couples who persist through cohabitation and enter marital unions at high levels of economic interdependence.” And he projects a future in which “marriage is rarer, and more stable, than it was in the past, representing an increasingly central component of the structure of social inequality.” Increasingly permissive attitudes towards living together and the decline of well-paying jobs that allow for financial stability means that couples who previously would have gotten married at a younger age put off that particular milestone until they’re more confident it won’t end in divorce. Which sounds like a good thing. But the growing dearth of jobs that allow for financial independence without a college degree means that marriage is increasingly becoming a status achievement rather than something that everyone is doing.

Cohen’s study builds on similar recent data. According to a 2016 study by the Brookings Institute, the “marriage gap” can be explained by declining marriage rates among the least educated. In the past, marriage was largely a classless institution; now three-fourths of women in their early 40s with bachelor’s degrees are married while just over half of women with a high school degree or less are married at the same age. In the 1970s that difference was negligible. The widening of the “marriage gap” has a stark impact on the timing of childbirth as well: Less than 10 percent of women with college degrees are unmarried by the time they give birth, compared to more than six out of ten women with a high school degree.

A recent Pew Research Center analysis of Census Bureau data adds further color to the emerging image of a more stable, but more exclusive, family life. “Among all stay-at-home moms and dads,” Pew found, “those who are home to care for family are more likely to have a college degree than stay-at-home parents who are home for other reasons,” like being unable to find work. Stay-at-home parents who choose to do so for their family are also less likely to be in poverty, and “are far more likely than those at home for other reasons to have a working spouse.” It’s not hard to imagine that those parents who are at home out of choice, rather than circumstance, would be more involved, because they’re not performing the exhausting task of looking for a job and are less distracted by the everyday mental toll that living in poverty exacts.

The Pew analysis and the one performed by Cohen both point to a not-too-distant future in which family life that gives enough freedom to make choices like staying at home to care for children, or even just tying the knot, will be the province of those with college degrees and a financial stability that is increasingly out of reach for the average American. Building long-lasting relationships that make sustaining a family easier shouldn’t be yet another privilege enjoyed only by the educated and the wealthy. But the data suggest we’re already well on our way to that reality.