Who Needs Marriage? A Changing Institution

The state of marriage is shifting in unexpected ways. A TIME/Pew special report shows how income, age and experience alter our chances of wedded bliss

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Horacio Salinas for TIME

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The changes can be seen in more subtle ways too. New York University sociologist Dalton Conley notes that between 1986 and 2003, the most recent year for which figures are available, the proportion of marriages in which the woman was taller than the man increased by more than 10%. "In absolute terms, it's still a small minority of marriages," he says. "But I think the trend signals an incredible shift in marital and gender norms." There has also been a sharp uptick in the percentage of marriages in which the wife is older, signifying, Conley believes, a whole different understanding of the roles of men and women in the union.

Despite the complications that have ensued from this marital restructuring, it's not likely to be undone. In the 1978 poll, fewer than half of all respondents thought that the best kind of marriage was one in which both the husband and the wife worked outside the home. In the new Pew poll, 62% do. Perhaps that's not surprising given these parallel data: in 1970, 40% of wives worked outside the home. Now 61% do.

So fundamental is the shift that it's beginning to have an impact on what people look for in spouses. While two-thirds of all people think a man should be a good provider, more men than women do. Meanwhile, almost a third of people think it's important for a wife to be a good provider too.

On the face of it, this might explain why fewer people are married. They want to finish college first. In 2010 the median age of men getting hitched for the first time is 28.2, and for women it's 26.1. It's gone up about a year every decade since the '60s.

But here's the rub. In the past two decades, people with only a high school education started to get married even later than college graduates. In 1990 more high-school-educated couples than college graduates had made it to the altar by age 30. By 2007 it was the other way around.

What has brought about the switch? It's not any disparity in desire. According to the Pew survey, 46% of college graduates want to get married, and 44% of the less educated do. "Fifty years ago, if you were a high school dropout [or] if you were a college graduate or a doctor, marriage probably meant more or less the same thing," says Conley. "Now it's very different depending where you are in society." Getting married is an important part of college graduates' plans for their future. For the less well educated, he says, it's often the only plan.

Promising publicly to be someone's partner for life used to be something people did to lay the foundation of their independent life. It was the demarcation of adulthood. Now it's more of a finishing touch, the last brick in the edifice, sociologists believe. "Marriage is the capstone for both the college-educated and the less well educated," says Johns Hopkins' Cherlin. "The college-educated wait until they're finished with their education and their careers are launched. The less educated wait until they feel comfortable financially."

But that comfort keeps getting more elusive. "The loss of decent-paying jobs that a high-school-educated man or woman could get makes it difficult for them to get and stay married," says Cherlin. As the knowledge economy has overtaken the manufacturing economy, couples in which both partners' job opportunities are disappearing are doubly disadvantaged. So they wait to get married. But they don't wait to set up house.

All this might explain why there was a 13% increase in couples living together from 2009 to 2010. Census researchers were so surprised at the jump that they double-checked their data. Eventually they attributed the sharp increase to the recession: these newly formed couples were less likely to have jobs.

So, people are living together because they don't have enough money to live alone, but they aren't going to get married until they have enough money. That's the catch. In fact, the less education and income people have, the Pew survey found, the more likely they are to say that to be ready for marriage, a spouse needs to be a provider.

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