Millennials and Marriage: Part 1, the data

Having spent the better part of the last two weeks in preparation, delivery, and conversation about hefty theological papers, I’d like to turn to consider another conversation that is going on in some circles I’ve been working through. Specifically, this will be a few conversations about the trends of Millennials and marriage. I’ve previously discussed some of this in a post of the similar title.

Today, I’d like to begin by posting some of the best data that I’ve found in my work on First Time Marriageunderstanding this generation and our patterns for marriage.

Just today, over at the Families Studies Blog, I read about a paper that had come out recently that looked at generational differences in marriage trends. The paper was titled Breaking Up is Hard to Count: The Rise of Divorce in the United States, 1980-2010 by Sheela Kennedy and Steven Ruggles. The paper is quite good and, as the title suggests, underlines the difficulty of getting precise numbers about the nature of divorce rates and relationship changes sociologically.

This is their conclusion:

“Fewer young people are getting married: over 40 % of the population in 2008 had not married by their 30th birthday, marking a fourfold increase since 1980. With the rise of cohabitation, it is likely that many couples who would have been at the highest risk of divorce in the past—for example, those entering unions as teenagers as a result of an unplanned pregnancy, or with low levels of income and education—are forgoing marriage entirely (Cherlin 2004; Smock et al. 2005). As pressures to marry recede, people can be more selective about their partners; thus, it makes sense that marriages may become more stable. We do not, however, anticipate that a decline of divorce will lead to an increase in overall union stability. Because cohabitating unions are more unstable than marriages, we expect that the rapid rise of cohabitation among the young will neutralize any decline of divorce (Kennedy and Ruggles 2013; Raley and Bumpass 2003).”

The paper contains some of the best data I’ve seen on understanding the sociological impact of Millennials and marriage while also drawing informed conclusions on the topic. As someone who works in marriage ministry with, at this point primarily, Millennials, there are some big wins but just as many losses.

One of the more significant issues that I’ve encountered in the church, and broader society, is that the older generations are looking for isolated data points that can be boiled down to simple conclusions. However, Millennials aren’t simple and their patterns can’t easily be boiled down to simple soundbites.

So what is some of the best data I’ve found? One of the first places I begin is understanding how cohabitation has impacted Millennials.

CohabitationSince Millennials are, right now, aged 18-34, seeing how they are approaching relationships prior to marriage is a precursor to understanding their views, innate or explicit, about marriage. Millennials are cohabiting at a rate of about 75%. As a result, 60% of cohabiting couples end up getting married, but cohabitation delays marriage by 18-24 months.

For Millennials and marriage, they are approaching marriage differently not based on race or even religion, but on socio-economic and educational factors. Better educated, better off Millennials are delaying marriage by 6-10 years, and first time childbirths as well, while their less educated, lower income peers begin families and marriage in their early 20s. 

How do we come by this data?

The best resource that I’ve encountered is the Pew Research Study on cohabitation.

Also see this article from, I believe a secular viewpoint, that brings some good conclusions to the forefront.

The best data I’ve seen on cohabitation and its correlation to divorce is this study from the CDC.

One of the troubling trends is that Millennials (the group most likely to be cohabitating right now) are divorcing at a higher rate than other generations, well for those who choose to marry.

Even the New York Times thinks cohabitation is a bad idea.

Right now, and the data is hard to come by because you’re primarily seeing studies geared towards Gen-Xers and Boomers, cohabitation leads to higher rates of divorce.

In the United States, researchers estimate that 40%–50% of all first marriages, and 60% of second marriages, will end in divorce. This is primarily geared at folks in their 30s. Since marriage is being delayed until late 20s the picture is harder to get at for Millennials. Couples who get married in their early 20s are two to three times as likely to get divorced as couples who wait until their mid to late 20s. Education is also a significant factor.

The real challenge for cohabitation isn’t that it leads to divorce, but that is delays marriage and have become an alternative to marriage. Because cohabitation has become so common (up 900% in 50 years) the statistics correlating cohabitation to divorce are increasingly harder to come by. There is a trend, but you have to look at couples who do not ever cohabitate (or engage sexually) prior to marriage versus the rest of their peers. That number, of sexually pure and non-cohabitating couples is so small it is hard to track.

The biggest issue that affects marriage and divorce among adults aged 20-39: religious adherence.

It will be to some of these factors that we turn next in talking about Millennials and Marriage.