The divorce rate is way down, but it's not all good news

Being a lifelong fan of marriage, not to mention a practitioner, I was rather heartened to hear some good news on the subject recently. The divorce rate is down. And I don’t mean by a little. New data indicates that in just the eight-year period from 2008 to 2016, the U.S. divorce rate has dropped 18 percent. And who do we have to thank for this? Hang on to your hats and, if you’re one of the older curmudgeons in the crowd like me, prepare to eat a little crow. We apparently have the millennials to thank for these improved numbers. They’re staying married longer and generally producing more successful, long-term unions.

But there’s a significant caveat which comes with this news. They may be getting divorced less frequently, but they’re also getting married less frequently and later in life. (Bloomberg)

Americans under the age of 45 have found a novel way to rebel against their elders: They’re staying married.

New data show younger couples are approaching relationships very differently from baby boomers, who married young, divorced, remarried and so on. Generation X and especially millennials are being pickier about who they marry, tying the knot at older ages when education, careers and finances are on track. The result is a U.S. divorce rate that dropped 18 percent from 2008 to 2016, according to an analysis by University of Maryland sociology professor Philip Cohen.

This is the area where the data gets a bit fuzzy. It’s true that marriage rates are dropping, but that only accounts for part of the decrease in divorce rates. Even when you adjust for the lower number of marriages, the number of divorces still fell by 8% during the same period. The reason appears to be that millennials tend to wait longer and marry after their careers are on track and they’ve saved up some money toward the costs associated with raising a family.

But that’s great news either way. We’ve always had a rather fanciful view of young love and the high school sweethearts who marry and live happily ever after. But the reality is that the very young can be more fickle and money problems can sink even the most promising unions. So exercising some responsibility and waiting to go down the aisle until you’re ready to face those hardships can’t really be criticized.

It’s not all good news, however. The flip side to the coin is that the other portion of people not getting married may never tie the knot. The marriage rate has plummeted more seriously among lower-income Americans with less education.

Many poorer and less educated Americans are opting not to get married at all. They’re living together, and often raising kids together, but deciding not to tie the knot. And studies have shown these cohabiting relationships are less stable than they used to be.

Fewer divorces, therefore, aren’t only bad news for matrimonial lawyers but a sign of America’s widening chasm of inequality. Marriage is becoming a more durable, but far more exclusive, institution.

No-fault divorce caused most of these problems for the baby boomer generation. The ease with which one can sever the marital bond and the generational financial pain those divorces inflicted on the newly single parents made marriage seem far less appealing. I grew up during that period and still recall any number of guys from my age group who swore off the idea of getting hitched because they’d seen too many guys before them go from a house in the suburbs with a wife and two kids to a crappy apartment and alimony payments that sucked up more than half of their income.

Still, none of that has wiped out marriage completely. I’m grateful for the match I wound up with (going on 25 years now) and still maintain hope that most people will eventually find the same type of happiness.