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The United States of unmarried adults

A record proportion of Americans have never been married as attitudes towards marriage and economic conditions have changed, according to new findings from the Pew Research Center.

A Pew survey found that one in five Americans who are 25 and older have never been married in 2012, compared to 9% in 1960. Men are more likely than women never to have married, but never-married men are also likely to be less educated than never-married women, and a shrinking number of them are employed.  

“If all never-married young women in 2012 wanted to find a young employed man who had also never been married, 9% of them would fail, simply because there are not enough men in the target group,” Pew found. About one-third of adult women who’ve never married have a bachelor’s or advanced degree, while only a quarter of their male counterparts do. 

That helps to explain why marriage rates have been lagging, particularly as the vast majority of never-married women (78%) say they want a spouse or partner with a steady job, the report points out. By contrast, “for never-married men, someone who shares their ideas about raising children is more important in choosing a spouse than someone who has a steady job,” Pew says. 

Americans are also declining to marry because of changing social norms, with growing numbers co-habitating, raising children outside of marriage, and delaying marriage until later in life. Younger adults in particular believe that marriage is less of a priority than older generations. About two-thirds of those between 18 and 29 years old believe that society is “just as well off if people have other priorities” than marriage and children. Overall, 50% of Americans agree.  

There are also significant racial differences in marriage rates. Among blacks aged 25 and older, 36% have never been married. By contrast, 26% of Hispanics and 16% of whites in the same age group have never been married. The trends also mirror the economic disparities between the groups.

Despite falling marriage rates, however, most Americans still believe that marriage is an important institution. 68% “continue to believe it is important for couples to marry if they plan to spend the rest of their lives together,” Pew says. 

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The United States of unmarried adults