Marriage is dead, long live marriage.
Last year, North Carolina registered only 70,000 marriages, a rate of 6.8 percent per 1,000 residents, compared to a high of 8.1 percent in 2000 less than a generation ago.
Given that the media has already convicted millennials of killing department stores, homeownership, diamonds, disposable napkins, and Applebee’s, one would think they’re also the prime suspect in the collapse of matrimony as well. After all, millennials just aren’t getting married at the same rate their parents did. Among younger millennials, only 20 percent of people age eighteen to thirty are hitched, but 40 percent of baby boomers and 32 percent of Gen Xers were married during the same period of their lives.
But here’s the thing: Millennials are simply waiting longer to tie the knot. In 2018, the median age of a first marriage was 29.5 years old for men and 27.4 years old for women, up from 23 years old and 20.8 years old, respectively, in 1970. Back then, marriage was often the first step to adulthood. For millennials, it can be among the last, a decision made after their careers and their debts are figured.
There is wisdom in waiting: When millennials marry, they divorce less.
The baby boomers, now between their mid-fifties and mid-seventies, made divorce an art form, and they’re still splitting up at astonishing rates. According to a Pew Research report, the divorce rate for those fifty and older has nearly doubled since the 1990s. Most of these divorces occur in second or third marriages, and for marriages shorter than nine years. (For those who stuck it out, divorce is unlikely; marriages of forty years or more are far more likely to end via the unconscious uncoupling of death than in a courtroom.)
But that doesn’t tell us why marriage rates are declining—and with them, the promises of two-and-a-half kids, a house with a mortgage, and a stable, one-company career.
Someone—or something—must be to blame.
Of course, millennials are having fewer children, too—perhaps because of increased access to birth control or economic precariousness. They’re not buying homes like their parents did, either. And the very nature of work has shifted and is continuing to shift. (Curse the words “gig economy.”)
All the while, the cost of weddings have soared—from $27,000 to $44,000 just between 2017 and 2018, according to Brides magazine. When the average price of a wedding in a big city like New York City can equal the price of a semester at a respectable university, it’s difficult not to compare what debts might be more useful: a wedding or a degree? (Worth noting: Millennials commonly cite student loan debt as a reason for waiting to get married.)
Maybe we should take a note from Jane Austen: Marriage has always been about class. The poorer you are, the less likely you are to get married. And no matter what class you are, you are most likely to marry someone of a similar educational background and income as you. In fact, many social scientists believe that class-similar marriages are part and parcel of income inequality.
Rich and educated people marry other rich and educated people, and they have rich and educated kids—and then bribe rowing coaches to get them into prestigious colleges, apparently. At that prestigious college, their rich and educated kid meets other rich and educated kids that they may later end up marrying. Their $44,000 wedding likely will be featured in The New York Times’s Style section. Wash, rinse, repeat.
But it’s a little more complicated than that. Second-wave feminism drove more women into professional spaces previously dominated by men, allowing the intermingling of men and women of similar educational backgrounds, creating more two-income heterosexual marriages. There are fewer spaces where people of different classes can intermingle and meet.
There are also the soft determinants of class. Class may be shaped by income, education, and geography, but it also can inform what movies you find funny, what bars you frequent, and what hobbies you take up—all the kind of things that might inform why we swipe right on a given Tinder profile. Note that this is not a new phenomenon; the idea of marrying across class has always been scandalous (please see: your tenth-grade literature class). But income inequality has grown in the decade since the Great Recession, and with it, so has the social segregation of class.
What does all this portend for the future of marriage? Who knows? Marriage is not an antidote to income inequality and should not be peddled as such. But pretending marriage can only be about love ignores its long, complicated history of negotiating properties—including the bride—between families. Still, it seems overly cynical to throw out a whole enterprise that supplies love, companionship, tax breaks, and disgustingly pleasurable wedding hashtags.
Wringing our hands over marriage rates is a great way to wring our hands over family values, the promise of stability, and America writ large. Though seemingly objective, statistics are convenient conduits for various ideologies. But maybe it’s never been about marriage at all. It’s been about all the different ways that class manifests in our lives: From who we marry to how we marry, it’s about money, not just love.
Follow Katie Jane Fernelius on Twitter @kjfernelius. Comment on this story at email@example.com.