I know I’m a lucky girl because I love my job (not everyone does you know). It gives me the privilege of keeping my finger on the pulse of consumer trends and purchasing behavior as my company, The Nielsen Company, measures what you watch and what you buy globally. I then have the pleasure of sharing that information with you because I so believe that knowledge is power. Recently Nielsen released a comprehensive report, The New Digital American Family, which highlights that the new family unit is more ethnically diverse than at any point in history. And, while I will certainly be sharing with you all of the eye-opening findings of the study in future columns, today I am focused on the one finding that sent a chill down my spine: “marriage is on the wane.”
Two trends impact the outlook for marriage: age at first marriage and opting out of marriage altogether. The proposed factors delaying marriage are many: an extended period of adolescence, an economy with few available jobs and the highly publicized single lifestyle modeled by celebrities. But it is co-habitation before marriage that appears to be the dominant, driving force of the decline in marriage.
Now if you’re a woman, you’ve more than likely been warned by your mama, grandma or auntie that “there’s no point in buying the cow when you can get the milk for free.” And while most of us decried being compared to a cow, we certainly understood the message behind the old adage: they didn’t want us shacking up, (mmm-hmm. You know that’s what your mama and grandmamma called it.) or living together before marriage. I tried living with my then boyfriend before we got married, and I was so traumatized by the thought of my mother’s disapproval that the live-in situation only lasted for three months (in retrospect the subsequent marriage didn’t last that much longer, but that’s another column) and that was in the 90s. In 1980 only 16 percent of adults lived together before marriage. By 2000, those couples choosing to shack-up jumped to 41 percent. Now, new census numbers expect to show that more than half – more than 50 percent – of all couples prefer to share a household without a marriage license. Wow. So much for taking mama and ‘dem’s advice. Am I the only one who was raised on pure guilt?! And for those who do get married, the median age at first marriage for men rose by six years since the middle of the Baby Boomer years.
The second trend is to never marry. Almost three-fourths, or 72 percent, of Americans over age 18 were married in 1960, but only 52 percent are today. Young Americans are delaying marriage and the rates are plummeting among all ethnic groups. To further confound the situation, sociologists are proposing a new way of thinking about marriage, summarized by the phrase “alone together.” This reflects more independent spouses who live separate lives with fewer shared activities than their married predecessors. (Can’t you just hear your grandmother’s uncensored response when you and your “boo” announce your “alone together” status: “Now what kind of nonsense mumble jumble is that?!” But truth be told maybe my marriage would have lasted longer had we had such a non-traditional arrangement). Statistically, both non-marriage and delayed marriage are equal opportunity realities encompassing all ethnic groups. And statistics show that college educated adults have the highest marriage rates; while those with a high school education or less have the lowest rates.
So whether you thought marriage was in your plans or not, at least you know how you or even your adult children fare compared to the rest of America. I contend there really is something to be said about that “cow for free” adage; sometimes mama ain’t always wrong, no matter what the unmarried numbers say. Perhaps if more parents guilted their kids into not living together outside of marriage we could impact these climbing numbers. You can rest assured that I absolutely plan to use the “guilt-method-of-parenting” on my son for as long as it works for me. Anyone out there willing to join me?
Cheryl Pearson-McNeil is the senior vice president of Public Affairs and Government Relations for The Nielsen Company. For more information and studies go to www.nielsenwire.com.