As a 20-something, Erin Turner feels she made all the right moves dating wise. She graduated from college and spent three and a half years with a boyfriend before they moved in together.
Their cohabitation bliss lasted only eight months.
“We broke up because when you live with someone, everything comes to the surface,” said Turner, who remains single in Chicago as her 30th birthday approaches in March.
“You start to see how people handle confrontation, financial realities, challenges, the housework load. If we had been married we would have been divorced, or fully on our way.”
While Turner hopes to marry one day, she’s not sweating it at the moment. Her parents divorced when she was young and she doesn’t want marriage badly enough to settle. She’d be sad if she never married, but she wouldn’t “implode.”
Heading into 2012, the importance of tying the knot doesn’t appear to be as universally accepted as it used to be, with barely half of all adults in the United States married, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of census data.
That’s down from 1960, when 72 percent of those 18 or older were married.
The median age at the time of a first marriage has never been higher – slightly more than 26 years old for women and nearly 29 for men.
The share of adults who are married could dip below half in a few years as single-person households, single parents and couples living together outside the bounds of legal marriage multiply. The number of new marriages in the U.S. fell 5 percent just from 2009 to 2010, a wrinkle that may or may not relate to the bad economy, Pew researcher D’Vera Cohn said.
The decline is spread among age groups but is most dramatic among Turner’s generation. Nearly three out of every five adults ages 18 to 29 were married in 1960, but now only one in five is.
Women, in particular, are experiencing a mass marriage rethink, said Ann Mack, a trend watcher for JWT Intelligence, an arm of the marketing giant.
“A growing number of women are taking an alternate life route that doesn’t include marriage as an essential checkpoint,” she said.
Retreat, maybe. But not outright abandonment, said Cohn and Stephanie Coontz, who wrote “Marriage: A History” and teaches family studies at Evergreen State University in Olympia, Wash.
“We as a society have to recognize that people do still get married but cycle into marriage later and may cycle out of marriage,” she said. “I think marriage is perceived as a very desirable good but no longer a necessity.”
In New York, 30-year-old Grace Bello, a freelance writer, said “not getting married wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. I think the worst-case scenario would be a loveless marriage that ends in divorce and to be a single mom supporting several kids. I’d rather be single for the rest of my life.”
Among the more dramatic developments is a 17-point marriage disparity along education lines.
Nearly two-thirds of all adults with college degrees, or 64 percent, are married, compared with 47 percent with high school degrees or less, according to the Pew snapshot released earlier this month. Fifty years ago, college graduates and those who had not gone beyond high school were about equally likely to be married.
For less educated and lower earning women in particular, Coontz said marriage is riskier than it used to be.
“Men’s real wages have fallen and they face a lot of job insecurity, so a woman who would have found a high school graduate a pretty damn good catch in 1960 now has to say to herself, ‘Would it really be smart of me to marry this guy?’ She’s choosing to focus on her own earning power.”
A separate Pew survey released last year found that while nearly 40 percent of respondents said marriage is becoming obsolete, 61 percent of those who were not married would like to be someday.
“I need to support a future family,” said Vince Tornero, a 23-year-old senior at Ohio State University in Columbus. “I want to have kids but I can’t have kids if I don’t have money.”
Pew also found that marriage statistics vary by race, with 55 percent of whites, 48 percent of Hispanics but just 31 percent of blacks married.