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The portion of American adults who have never married has reached a record high, according to a Pew Research Center report that says one-fifth or about 42 million people who are 25 and older have never said "I do."
In 1960, 9 percent of folks that age had never married.
The increase reflects shifts in values, economics and gender patterns, but not notably decreased regard for marriage, according to Pew senior researcher Wendy Wang, who co-wrote the report, released today.
"It is not like there is a lack of desire for marriage," she said. "Poll after poll shows the majority among the never-marrieds still want to get married, but when you ask why they are not currently married, the top reasons are either they have not found the right person or they are just not financially ready."
Financial reasons top the list of why individuals 25 to 34 remain single.
The report also documents mixed feelings about marriage's role in society. When researchers asked whether making marriage and children a priority will benefit society, half of those surveyed said yes and half said no. Younger respondents were less likely to say marriage and children are necessary to benefit society.
But asked, "Do you think it is very important for a couple to get married if they intend to spend the rest of their life together, the majority do think that it is very important," Wang said. "Marriage still plays a central role in personal life — at least, that's what the ideals are."
Breaking it down
Not everyone counted as "never married" is single. The researchers didn't separate out those who live with a partner. "We only cared about their marital status," said Wang, who noted that about one-fourth of young adults now cohabitate. "That's pretty high, historically."
More men than women have never been married (23 percent vs. 17 percent), a gender gap that's been widening for a half-century.
The report said the "dramatic rise in the share of never-married adults and the emerging gender gap are related to a variety of factors," including adults marrying later in life and the increasing number who choose to live together and raise children without marrying.
"In addition, shifting public attitudes, hard economic times and changing demographic patterns may all be contributing to the rising share of never-married adults," Pew Research Center reported.
Single women and single men seek different things in a potential spouse. Men place higher value on finding a spouse who shares their ideas about raising children than on finding someone who has a steady job.
"Never-married women are much more likely to say they want to find a spouse with a steady job," Wang said. "Which is interesting, because it's 2014, in the context that women are better-educated than a lot of men, and single women are also more likely to be employed. If you look at the labor market over time for young men, a declining share are employed and they are less-educated than young women, so it's actually harder for a young unmarried woman to find someone with a steady job than before. It's a 'mismatch' between what people are looking for there and what is a reality in the marriage market."
For both genders, it is less important to find someone who shares their moral and religious beliefs, has similar educational attainment or comes from the same racial or ethnic background as it is to find someone who works or who agrees about whether to have children and how to raise them.
Marriage itself has changed. Financial security was a big reason women married in the past, since they were far less likely to be earning their own salary. Now most women are in the workforce and have incomes; they are less financially dependent on men, Wang said.
People with higher educational attainment are more likely to be married than those with less education, the report said. When the researchers decided to look at it from the viewpoint of never-married adults, they found that "men who have only a high school diploma are the group most likely to be never-married," Wang said. For women, there's no educational difference in terms of whether they ever married.
The report did not find a different desire for marriage based on education level, for either men or women. But "people with less education are more likely to stress the steady-job part of the qualification for getting married," Wang said.
"My biggest concern here is that, I suspect, ambivalence is highest among working-class and poor adults, for whom marriage often seems out of reach, partly for economic reasons and partly because of a breakdown in trust and family stability in their circles," said W. Bradford Wilcox, executive director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia.
Wilcox was not involved in the study but has extensively researched and written about marriage in America.
America is experiencing what Wilcox calls a "growing marriage divide." Upscale Americans have comparatively stable, high-quality marriages and their kids enjoy the benefits of stable family life. Working-class and poor Americans, on the other hand, "face increasingly unstable, lower-quality married and unmarried relationships — and the majority of their kids see parents part ways before they reach adulthood.
"This growing marriage divide fuels economic and social inequality and, more fundamentally, a deep cynicism about the possibility of lifelong love among working-class and poor Americans," Wilcox said.
Will vs. won't
The researchers tried to project which portion of the never-marrieds will remain single by age 45-54. Of current unmarried adults in their 20s and 30s, it's expected that by their 40s and 50s, about 25 percent will not have married — and that number, too, will be a record high. But that doesn't mean everyone will stay single.
"It's not like people who are 55 years or older who have never married won't ever get married, but we have calculated the rates and it looks like their chance of getting married for the first time at that age is much smaller than for the young adults," Wang said.