When “I do” becomes “I don’t”
Last week, the Population Reference Bureau crunched some Census data and disgorged a rather shocking statistical nugget: For the first time in U.S. history, the number of young adults (those between 25 and 34) who have never been married exceeds those who are married.
A Wall Street Journal story adds some additional perspective: “The long-term slide in marriage rates has pushed the proportion of married adults of all ages to 52% in 2009, according to the Census, the lowest share in history. In 1960, 72.2% of adults over 18 were married.”
I don’t believe that demographics are destiny necessarily — but these numbers do qualify for what I call a BDD, a Big Demographic Deal. The implications are potentially huge — in economics, culture, politics, and business. Here are some questions off the top of my head:
- Economics: It’s harder to buy a house with one income than two, and tougher to commit to a gigantic purchase if you’re living together instead of officially hitched. Is this trend another reason — i.e., weaker demand — that the housing market could stay sluggish for a long while? At the same time, these data seem further proof that women are gaining power economically. (Indeed, they’re already a majority of the U.S. workforce and, on average, are beating men on educational attainment.) Is this phenomenon a sign that women are finally gaining something close to economic parity? If so, what does that mean for everything from wage inequality to the work-family practices of companies?
- Culture: We’re already hearing about 20-somethings delaying adulthood. Is this, like the new health care law’s allowing people to stay on their parents’ insurance until age 26, another sign of a new stage of life — somewhere between adolescence and real adulthood? Also, it’s clear from the data that men are becoming more economically dependent on women, especially men without much formal education. Does that suggest an impending backlash among men or perhaps a redefinition of masculinity?
- Politics: Single people are more likely to vote for Democrats. Married people are more likely to vote for Republicans. With marriage becoming less of cultural norm, does that augur a political shift in favor of the Dems?
- Business: Seems to me a ton of new business could arise to take advantage of this trend. What about gift registries or legal advice services for couples deciding to live together? A line of single-sized gourmet food for well-compensated people eating alone? What about a group buying service to give singletons some collective leverage in the marketplace? Or a real estate brokerage devoted exclusively to helping single women with enough money to buy homes? Since postponed (or never realized) marriage usually delays the decision to have children, will there be new opportunities in adoption services and fertility treatments? Or fast-forward a few decades and imagine large numbers of elderly singles. Are we looking at dorms for seniors in 2060? This is America, baby! Someone will figure out a way to make some money from this BDD.