Those who worry about Americans’ declining likelihood of being married are often reminded that plenty of single people are merely delaying marriage, not deliberately avoiding it altogether. Some are in satisfying relationships but are putting off marriage while they complete their educations or seek more stable employment; others simply haven’t met the right person yet. More than half of never-married adults want to marry someday, and doubtless many of them will fulfill that desire—they’ll just tie the knot a bit later in life than their parents and grandparents did.

All of this is true. Yet analysis of historical marriage patterns suggests that the decline of marriage is probably not just about delaying marriage. It also means fewer Americans will ever marry. As University of Minnesota demographer Steven Ruggles documents in a recent working paper, across most of the past century, each birth cohort of Americans has been less likely to marry than the preceding cohort, and the percentage of a group married by age 20 to 24 has almost always been a reliable predictor of how many will be married by the time the group reaches age 40 to 44.

The figures are striking:

women men

Can we predict the future marital patterns of today’s younger generations? Ruggles writes:

By fitting marriage curves derived from historical data, Goldstein and Kenney (2001) concluded that about 90% of younger cohorts will eventually marry. Since then, however, the young have continued to diverge sharply from historical marriage patterns, and Goldstein and Kenny’s predictions do not seem to be coming true. In the context of such rapid change, there is no guarantee that the old marriage models still apply. People do not have unlimited opportunities to marry, so a delay in marriage necessarily increases the chances that marriage will not occur.

Empirically, it is unusual for a cohort to forgo marriage early on but then catch up in later life. Among the fifteen birth cohorts of women I have reconstructed for persons born between 1825 and 1965, there is only one in which the percentage married at age 20-24 did not accurately predict the percentage who had married by age 40-44. That exceptional birth cohort was born between 1915 and 1919; they reached age 18 between 1933 and 1938 and reached age 24 between 1939 and 1943. Under the adverse conditions of depression and war during their prime marrying years, many of these women delayed marriage. In the end, however, they did catch up; only 6% had never married by the time they reached 40-44 years old in the postwar years. If this cohort had behaved like all the others, their non-marriage would have been about 50% higher. There was no catch-up for the other 14 cohorts I examined: in all other periods, the percentage ever married at age 20-24 (with a log transformation) predicts almost perfectly the percentage never married by age 40-44.

Although, as he adds, “we have no way of telling whether this simple relationship will hold true in the future,” to my mind there’s little reason to expect today’s young people to buck the prevailing trend and end up marrying at historically normal rates.

Is that such a bad thing? Yes and no. No, because a major factor behind the decline of marriage is an increase in economic opportunity for women. It is obviously good that women can avoid poverty and achieve many of their goals in life without getting married. And it’s a good thing that those who do not wish to marry, for whatever reason, no longer face social ostracism.

On the other hand, the decline of marriage means adults will be poorer, less healthy, and less happy on average. In addition, many people forgoing marriage are still having children, so the decline of marriage means an increasing proportion of children will experience family instability and all its attendant risks. But beyond these utilitarian reasons, the fact that fewer and fewer Americans are able to achieve the widely shared dream of a lifelong marriage is simply tragic.