Historically, the American divorce rate has generally been the highest in the modern world. This was true even in the colonial days. Beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a sudden spike in the divorce rate was the atomic bomb that struck the American family and the lives of millions upon millions of children. The unanticipated legacy of this has been well documented by scholars and they conclude it was more deeply harmful to everyone involved than even the most extreme voices warned. But what has the divorce rate been doing in America in the last few years? Is it still climbing?
This is a question some leading scholars at the National Center for Family & Marriage Research (NCFMR) at Bowling Green University have taken up and what they’ve found is good news. Their report tracks the divorce rate in the United States from 1900 to the current day and overall. Less than 1% of ever-married women were either separated or divorced in 1900. Today 21% are. But the divorce rate (the number of divorced women for every 1,000 unmarried ones) has been declining since reaching its apex in 1980. In 1960, the divorce rate was 9.2, rising to a whopping 22.6 in 1980. Currently, the rate is back down to 15.7, just slightly over its 1970 level.
When broken down by race, Asian-Americans have the lowest rate of divorce among all categories and consistently so. The rate for Hispanics is a tad lower than it is for Whites, but it is highest for Black Americans, markedly so.
The differences by education level are distinct, but not as stark as by race, with those with the most educational attainment having the lowest rates of divorce while those who did not earn their high school diploma have the highest.
The Young Are Divorcing Much Less
Professor Philip Cohen, a noted sociologist of the family at the University of Maryland, has explained in this paper The Coming Divorce Decline, that even the risk of divorce is declining for younger couples, and projections show this continuing into the future. Cohen explains, that while fewer people are marrying, the “United States is progressing toward a system in which marriage is … more stable than it was in the past.” This is demonstrated by the fact that, as he explains it, “the odds of divorce in the first decade or two of marriage fell” for those marrying from 1980 to 2010, and he projects this is continuing with even younger couples. The divorce rate is growing only among Baby Boom couples as they enter their twilight years. The National Center for Family & Marriage Research reveals,
- Among women aged 55-64, their divorce rate nearly tripled between 1990 to 2017, (from 4 to 11 per 1,000), while it doubled for their male peers (from 6 to 12 per 1,000).
And this is only increasing with age.
- For women aged 65 and older, their divorce rate increased six-fold (1 to 6 per 1,000) from 1990 to 2017, whereas it nearly tripled for men (2 to 5 per 1,000).
Some scholars surmise that this graying of divorce is a function of Boomers simply bringing the values of their younger days into their twilight years, but others are just not sure.
Cohen is fascinated with the lowering divorce rate for younger marrieds and believes this is likely to continue: “lower divorce rates for young adults now may portend lower divorce rates for their children.” Why is this happening? Cohen supposes it’s the confluence of three factors: Younger women are marrying later in life, more have college degrees and they are increasingly likely to be entering their first marriage, rather than a second or third, all factors of greater marital success.
While the divorce rate in America is moving in a better direction, that is not the case with marriage. The National Center for Family & Marriage Research explains that the marriage rate in the United States today is a third of what it was at its height in 1920, when there were 92 married women per thousand unmarried ones, down to only 31 today. However, a slight silver lining in that dark cloud is that marriage’s long decline appears to have stabilized over the last decade. Whether that slowing marks a trend is yet to be seen.
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