In 1979, [AW1] after a steep rise during the 1960s and 1970s, the U.S. divorce rate reached an all-time high. No one foresaw anything other than continued increases. But that didn’t happen. The number of divorces per 1,000 people declined from a peak of 5.3 in 1979 to 2.3 in 2020—a fall of more than half (U.S. National Center for Health Statistics, 1983, 2022). Demographers call this statistic the “crude divorce rate” because it doesn’t take into account changes in the population such as the percentage of people who never marry and the ratio of adults to children per every 1,000 people. In fact, the true story of the divorce decline is complex, with the rate among some groups going down a lot, among others going down a little, and among others going up. Moreover, if we were to count the separations of unmarried couples as if they were divorces, we would find that the total amount of partnership breakups has not declined.
First, fewer people are marrying during their lifetimes. In the 1970s, cohabiting relationships were just becoming acceptable among the middle class. Marriage was still the way that most adults started their partnerships. But as cohabitation—living with a partner without marrying—has become more common (nearly two-thirds of adults have cohabited at some time in their lives (Manning, 2020)), a growing share of people in recent decades are never marrying. Demographers now estimate that about 75 percent of adults will marry (Martin, Astone, & Peters, 2014), down from about 90 percent in the mid-twentieth century (Cherlin, 1992). However, many of the never-marrying adults enter into cohabiting unions. These unions have high breakup rates. But none of these breakups make it into our divorce statistics because they are not formal, legal divorces. When demographers add these informal breakups in with legal divorces, they find no decline—and possibly an increase—in what we might call union dissolution, the number of dissolutions of cohabiting or marital unions (Eickmeyer, 2019; Schwartz & Li, 2022). In other words, there are just as many breakups of intimate partnerships as there were in the 1980s, but more of them are occurring among cohabiting couples.
Among the share of the population that does marry, divorce rates have [AW2] [AC3] dropped the most for college graduates (McErlean, 2021). The drop has been smaller for people who have not received BA or BS (or higher) degrees. Why have college graduates seen the biggest decline? The most likely explanation is that people with college degrees have been able to find well-paying, stable jobs in the growing professional and technical sectors of the economy, allowing them to support a marriage. Money doesn’t buy love, but it does provide married parents with the peace of mind that they will be able to buy a home and pay for their children’s college educations. A sufficient, stable income reduces the risk of divorce. People without college degrees have not been as fortunate because of the decline in industrial jobs, stagnant wages, and increased cost of living.
The drop in divorce rates has also been more noticeable among the younger adult population than among older adults (Cohen, 2019). One in three divorces in 2019 occurred to people over age 50—a much higher share than was the case a few decades ago (Brown & Lin, 2022). Sociologists have taken to calling these breakups “gray divorces.” [GU4] They are puzzling because we might expect that older adults, having been married for a longer time and having more life experience, would experience less divorce than younger adults. In fact, the chance that an older couple will divorce is lower than the chance for a younger couple, but the gap is narrowing. The reason for the rise of gray divorce is what demographers call a cohort effect. A cohort is a group of people who were born in a certain period. In this case, the relevant period is the baby boom that lasted from the end of World War II in 1945 to the mid-1960s. The people in this cohort—the baby boomers—entered young adulthood, the time of life at which people tend to form intimate partnerships, in the late 1960s and the 1970s. This was a time of great social and cultural ferment. The idea spread that people should judge the success of their marriages by their personal happiness rather than, say, by the expectations of their families and friends. The baby boomers, believing that people no longer personally satisfied with their marriages are justified in getting a divorce, divorced in unprecedented numbers. Later, as they passed the stage of life when people typically marry, they were replaced by young adults not as influenced by the 1960s and 1970s. Meanwhile, as they aged, the baby boomers kept divorcing (and remarrying and divorcing again)—at lower but still noticeable rates. And as they have entered late middle age and old age, they are still divorcing—at an even lower rate, but more than the generations that have preceded or followed (Brown & Lin, 2022). This is a pig-in-the-python effect: After the snake has swallowed the pig, one can see a bump that travels slowly from mouth to tail, becoming smaller as it moves. The travel in this case is through time, and the bump is the baby boomers. Gray divorce has increased not because there’s something inherent in old age that makes people get divorced, but rather because the baby boomers are the people who constitute the older population today.[GU5]
So, has the divorce rate declined? Yes, overall, if we are talking about legal divorces among married couples. The decline in divorce, however, has been significantly greater among college graduates than among the less educated. Moreover, divorce has fallen among younger adults while rising among older adults. And if we were to treat the breakups of cohabiting unions as equivalent to legal divorces, we would find that the rate of union dissolution has not changed and may even have increased. [AW6]
1. Why has the divorce rate gone down more for college-educated people than for those without college educations?
2. Should the breakups of unmarried couples be counted as “divorces”? Why or why not?
3. What is responsible for the sharp increases in divorce among people age 50 and over?
Brown, S. L., & Lin, I. F. (2022). The Graying of Divorce: A Half Century of Change. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B. doi:10.1093/geronb/gbac057
Cherlin, A. J. (1992). Marriage, Divorce, Remarriage: Revised and Enlarged Edition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Cohen, P. N. (2019). The coming divorce decline. Socius, 5, 1-6.
Eickmeyer, K. J. (2019). Cohort Trends in Union Dissolution During Young Adulthood. Journal of Marriage and Family, 81(3), 760-770.
Manning, W. D. (2020). Thirty Years of Changing Cohabitation Experience in the U.S., 1987–2017. National Center for Family and Marriage Research, Family Profile FP-20-27. Retrieved from https://www.bgsu.edu/content/dam/BGSU/college-of-arts-and-sciences/NCFMR/documents/FP/manning-30-years-changing-cohabitation-US-1987-2017-fp-20-27.pdf
Martin, S. P., Astone, N. M., & Peters, H. E. (2014). Fewer Marriages, More Divergence: Marriage Projections for Millennials to Age 40. Retrieved from http://www.urban.org/UploadedPDF/413110-Fewer-Marriages-More-Divergence.pdf?RSSFeed=Urban.xml
McErlean, K. (2021). The Growth of Education Differentials in Marital Dissolution in the United States. Demographic Research, 45(26), 841-856.
Schwartz, C. R., & Li, A. (2022). The Divorce Decline and Relationship Stability: 1970-2019. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Population Association of America, Atlanta.
U.S. National Center for Health Statistics. (1983). Vol. 32, No. 3. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/mvsr/supp/mv32_03s.pdf
U.S. National Center for Health Statistics. (2022). National Marriage and Divorce Rate Trends for 2000-2020. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/dvs/national-marriage-divorce-rates-00-20.pdf