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When and How Often People Marry Changes by Birth Cohort

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Most adults born in 1940-1944 were married by age 25 (79.6% of women and 65.3% of men). Half a century later, the change was dramatic: Only 30.3% of women and 20.3% of men born from 1990-1994 were married by age 25.

But marrying later also meant fewer trips to the altar, according to U.S. Census Bureau data released today.

The 2021 Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) allows us to study trends in marital patterns and compare the marital history by sex and birth cohort, which refers to people born during a specific group of years. For this analysis, we looked at five-year birth cohorts for both women and men, starting with the population born in 1940-1944 and ending with those born in 1990-1994.

The percentage of women ever married by age 30 declined 31.5 percentage points between the 1940-1944 and the 1985-1989 birth cohorts. The decline was even larger for men at 36.4 percentage points.

Specifically, the analysis includes interviewed women and men ages 15 and over who were born in 1940-1994. This includes both opposite-sex and same-sex couples.

Decline in Marriage Rates by Age and Birth Cohort

The historical decline in the percentage of women and men who have ever been married continued among young adults (Figure 1):

  • The percentage of women ever married by age 30 declined 31.5 percentage points between the 1940-1944 and the 1985-1989 birth cohorts. The decline was even larger for men at 36.4 percentage points.
  • Between the 1940-1944 and the 1980-1984 birth cohorts, the percentage of women and men ever married by age 35 declined 18.6 and 21.7 percentage points, respectively.

Marrying Later, Not More Often

Aging provides increased opportunities and time for an individual to get married or remarried. As a result, it can be expected that younger cohorts will have a higher share of women and men who have never been married and a smaller share who have been married two or more times.

Given the limited amount of time adults in the 1985-1989 and the 1990-1994 birth cohorts have had to get married once, let alone twice or more, they are not included in the following analyses.

Figure 2 shows how the number of times women marry differs by birth cohort.

For instance, 4.1% of women in the 1940-1944 birth cohort had never been married in 2021, much lower than the 18.3% of never-married women in the 1975-1979 birth cohort.

Comparing the same birth cohorts, the oldest one had double the share of women married two or more times (28.6%) as the younger group (14.0%).

Although the percentage of women married only once has fluctuated across birth cohorts, it did not differ between 1940-1944 and 1975-1979 birth cohorts. 

The number of times men married also differed by birth cohort (Figure 3). As with women, the percentage of never-married men increased and the percentage of men married two or more times decreased between the 1940-1944 and the 1975-1979 birth cohorts. 

However, the percentage of men married only once was 4.8 percentage points higher for the youngest birth cohort when compared to the oldest cohort. 

How Often Men and Women Marry May Depend on When They First Marry

Take for example two 36-year-olds — one who married at age 25 and the other at 32.

Both have had the same amount of time to get married once. But because they can’t marry again until the first marriage ends, the one who married at age 25 would have 11 years to end their first marriage and marry again, while the person who married at age 32 would have only four years. 

Women in younger birth cohorts are waiting longer to get married (Figure 1), and yet the oldest and the youngest cohorts do not differ in the share that married once (Figure 2).

Figure 4 breaks down the share of women married once by their age at first marriage between 1940-1944 and 1975-1979 birth cohorts. It shows that among women who married only once, the share who married earlier has decreased and the share who married later increased.

For example, the percentage of women married by age 25 who had married once decreased from 54.2% and 32.2%, between the 1940-1944 and the 1975-1979 birth cohorts, while the percentage of women married at age 26 or older who had married once increased among the same birth cohorts, from 13.1% to 35.5%, respectively.

A similar pattern can be seen among men in the same birth cohorts. Among those who had married once, the percentage married by age 25 decreased from 39.4% to 23.1% and the percentage married at age 26 or older increased from 21.7% to 42.9%.

For men married only once, the 1955-1959 birth cohort was the first one in which there was a larger share of men who married older. For women, that did not happen until the 1975-1979 birth cohort. 

Across birth cohorts, those who entered a first marriage by age 25, had a higher share of the population that married two or more times (Figure 5) than those who first married at an older age.

Among the oldest birth cohort — those born from 1940 to 1944 — around a quarter of all women and men were married by age 25 and eventually married two or more times. A much lower percentage were married at age 26 or older and married two or more times (3.2% of women and 8.2% of men).

Across birth cohorts, the share of women who married later (age 26 or older) and had two or more marriages was consistently low — only 3.2% of both the oldest and youngest cohorts.

While the share of men in this group was also fairly low across birth cohorts, the percentage increased as cohorts got older, from 3.2% in the 1975-1979 birth cohort to 8.2% in the 1940-1944 birth cohort. 

SIPP and Marital History

In 2021, the SIPP included detailed marital history content for the first time since the 2014 Social Security Administration Supplement Data.

This new content includes information for all adults 15 years and older on the first, second and third or most recent marriage and associated separation, divorce or widowhood, when applicable.

Detailed marital history information allows for the examination of the ages at and lengths of multiple marital events. Additionally, the 2021 SIPP provides the opportunity to explore the marital patterns of multiple birth cohorts not previously included in SIPP data.

The SIPP is a nationally representative, longitudinal survey administered by the Census Bureau that provides comprehensive information on the dynamics of income, employment, household composition and government program participation.

For technical documentation and more information about SIPP data quality, please visit the SIPP Technical Documentation webpage. The estimates presented here are subject to sampling and non-sampling error.

Brittany M. King is a survey statistician in the Census Bureau’s Fertility and Family Statistics Branch.

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