The Changing Family: Marriage and Divorce in the New Millenium

Source: Pamela Paul, "Millennial Myths - National Center for Health Statistics report on fertility, marriage and divorce rates," Forecast, Sept 17, 2001.

Don't believe everything you read. While headlines exaggerate the death of marriage, rampant divorces and rising infertility rates, recent data from the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) tells another story. According to provisional figures released in August by the government agency, the fertility rate actually rose slightly between 1999 and 2000, the marriage rate stabilized (after 10 consecutive years of decline) and the divorce rate continued its 20 year downward trajectory.

That said, the biggest news in the report, "Births, Marriages, Divorces, and Deaths: Provisional Data for January--December 2000," is overall stability. "When you look at the data over the long run, there's no massive decline in marriage, and the divorce rate has slowly moderated," says Jim Weed, deputy director of the division of vital statistics at the NCHS.

Indeed, the release of the last century's data provides an ideal opportunity to look back and put these figures in historical context, particularly for the contentious issues of marriage and divorce rates. While termed "preliminary," the report details the only information that the NCHS will be providing on marriage and divorce for the year 2000. (The full research program was cut back in 1996.) It's true that the birth rate has slowly declined over the past 60 years, particularly when contrasted with the high number of births during the Baby Boom years. But when marriage and divorce rates are viewed over the long term, the only significant changes took place during the exceptional Baby Boom; otherwise, both rates have stayed relatively steady.

When viewed over a 60-year period, the marriage rate, for example, has remained fairly constant, with several long periods of slight ups and downs. The number of marriages per 1,000 people now hovers at 8.5, compared with a 60-year average of 10.1. The variations that did occur tended to come in times of depression and war, when fewer people got hitched because of economic or obvious logistical reasons. Interestingly, while the 1950s are thought of as boom time for the family, the marriage rates were relatively low through the latter half of the decade and into the early 1960s. (Indeed, today's rate beats that of 1958.) Then in 1968, when hippies were supposedly lovin' the ones they were with, the marriage rate rose and stayed relatively high through 1975. It's only when the numbers are viewed with in a narrow 20-year context that marriage looks to be on its deathbed.

And despite the buzz that divorce is at epidemic proportions, the NCHS report shows that the divorce rate has, in fact, been slowly declining since its perilous peak in 1981, when it reached a rate of 5.3 divorces per 1,000 people. However, it should be noted that these preliminary figures do not include data for Colorado, Indiana, Louisiana or California, and the latter two have traditionally high divorce rates. In addition, the relatively low divorce rate is in part a reflection of recent relatively low marriage rates. Nonetheless, according to the data currently available, in 2000 the divorce rate dropped to 4.1, the lowest since 1972, and lower than it was when the Greatest Generation returned from World War II in 1946. (The divorce rate spiked that year to 4.3 from 3.5.) Today's marrying generation may not be the "greatest," but perhaps they're not so bad after all.

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