The United States might have hit its lowest marriage rate in more than 100 years in 2020, but the popularity of reality television shows such as “Married at First Sight” and new research show that it’s not a lack of desire among adults to get married that is causing the slump, but a struggle among many to find the right partner. And this struggle could put the nation at risk in the long run.
New data show that a decline in the marriage rate goes hand in hand with a decline in the fertility rate. Researchers are now warning that without appropriate interventions, a continuous slide in the nation’s fertility rate will lead to the aging and shrinking of the U.S. population, a decline in productivity and instability in financing old-age programs such as Social Security and Medicare.
“When fewer women are married, fewer babies are born. In fact, about half of the decline in fertility since 2008 can be attributed to changes in marital composition, according to an analysis by Lyman Stone,” Wendy Wang, director of research at the Institute for Family Studies, said in the recently published research brief.
Gallup research shows that since 2015, less than 50% of U.S. adults have been registered as married, a decline over the years from a consistent 64% between 1978 and 1983. Since the Great Recession in 2007, marriage and fertility rates have been consistently declining.
According to data cited in Wang’s brief, marriage significantly impacts fertility rates because women who are married have a higher fertility rate than unmarried ones. In 2020, for example, the birth rate for married women was 81 per 1,000 between the ages of 15-44. It was just 39 per 1,000 for unmarried women of the same age.
She noted that an American woman is expected to have about 1.6 children in her lifetime, which is well below the population replacement level of 2.1 children per woman.
“Simply put, other things being equal, if the marriage rate had remained the same since 2008, the U.S. fertility rate would have been around replacement level,” Wang said.
However, a YouGov survey by the IFS and the Wheatley Institution shows that the top reason people cite for not having the number of children they desire is, “I am still looking for the right spouse/partner.”
Some 44% of Americans ages 18-55 who desire to have children (first or more) stated this reason compared to 36% who cite financial reasons, and 25% who blame their lifestyle and career choices.
“Finding the right spouse/partner is especially important among childless adults. A majority of childless adults who want children (60%) cite this as a reason for their unmet fertility desire, compared with 16% of parents who want more children,” Wang noted.
Only 37% of childless adults cited financial reasons for not having children, while 28% pointed to their lifestyle or career choices for not having children.
In "The Puzzle of Falling US Birth Rates since the Great Recession" by Melissa S. Kearney, Phillip B. Levine and Luke Pardue, published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives earlier this year, researchers noted that they saw no signs that the trend in falling fertility rates would change anytime soon and suggested that changing cultural norms are driving the decline.
“While the decline is concentrated among women in the under 30 age group, the decline is generally widespread across demographic subgroups, which gives reason to suspect that the dominant explanation for the aggregate decline is likely to be multifaceted or society-wide. We see no indication in the data that there is likely to be a reversal of these trends in the near future,” the researchers noted.
“If period-and location-specific factors generally cannot explain declining birth rates, perhaps the cause has to do with changes in the cohorts of women moving through their childbearing years. Shifting priorities among more recent birth cohorts — potentially driven by changes in preferences for having children, aspirations for life, and parenting norms — would represent a more universal, harder-to-quantify factor that may be the key driver of the decline in birth rates in the United States (and elsewhere),” they said.
“This line of explanation is potentially related to a concept referred to by demographers as the ‘second demographic transition.’ Our conclusion briefly considers the societal consequences for the United States of a declining birth rate — such as reduced productivity growth and instability in the finances of programs to support the elderly like Social Security and Medicare — and what might be done about it,” the researchers added.
Wang’s brief suggested that government assistance that incentivizes having more children could help the declining fertility rates. She noted that nearly half of parents who desire more children, 49%, and 43% of childless adults who want children say a child allowance, such as $300 per child per month, would make them more likely to have children.
According to Kearney, Levine and Pardue, pronatalist policies that make it more affordable for families to have children, such as subsidized childcare, parental leave policies and child allowances or tax credits, won’t solve the current fertility challenges.
“The evidence about pronatalist policies that have been implemented and evaluated in the United States and in other high-income countries suggests that these types of policies lead to modest increases in birth rates in the short-term but are unlikely to lead to sustained higher birth rates,” the researchers said.
“We see no particular reason to believe that a pronatalist public agenda will have much effect on birth rates (although, of course, some parts of that agenda may be desirable for other reasons). Thus, the most appropriate way to address declining US birth rates may be to address its two main symptoms directly: that is, a greater emphasis on technological improvements, along with investments in human capital and productivity-enhancing infrastructure, and a greater emphasis on putting the finances of Social Security and Medicare on a secure basis for the long-term,” they explained.
“The US economy and political system will need to contend with these issues if the recent, sustained decline in birth rates is not reversed.”