The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.
-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia
Given Americans’ dramatically loosened modern attitudes towards divorce and cohabitation, one would expect, perhaps, to see more divorce. And yet, as Philip Cohen of the University of Maryland observes in a paper soon to be presented, the opposite is true.
Cohen begins by pointing out “the decline in divorce in the three decades after 1980,” which is attributed in other research to “the aging of the most divorce-prone cohort, the Baby Boomers.” As the Boomers aged, the so-called “grey divorce revolution” took place, in which record numbers of older adults began to seek a divorce. But even amidst this rise, Cohen argues, “however one interprets the trends before 2010, all signs now point toward decreasing divorce rates, on a cohort and population basis, in the coming years.” Cohen finds this coming decrease “remarkable” as it coincides with “an increase in less-stable cohabiting relationships” and also “a growing cultural acceptance of divorce.”
For his source, Cohen relies on data from the American Community Survey, which introduced questions on marital events in 2008. His final regression sample is 6.18 million American women, and he also measures for “divorce-protective factors,” such as age, ethnicity, higher education, first marriage, and a woman’s lack of her own children upon entering the marriage.
Cohen’s research aligns with that of others, finding a huge 21% decline in the divorce rate in the period 2008 to 2017. Furthermore, “The predictors of divorce are as expected, with increased age, marital duration, fewer marriages, foreign-born status, more education, and White or Hispanic identity all being associated with lower odds of divorce.” And in spite of the fact that older women have historically been divorcing more, Cohen’s model also “shows no increase in the adjusted odds of divorce for older women in the last decade.”
Cohen believes these age patterns merit closer examination. If, as he speculates, the divorce uptick was initiated by the Baby Boom generation, there would be no reason to expect it to continue among cohorts of younger women. And if, as research has demonstrated, one divorce makes higher-order divorces more likely, then there would also be reason to suspect that a lack of younger divorce would make longer marital stability more likely. Or, as Cohen puts it, “While divorce prevalence for older people continued to increase after 1990, rates plateaued for those under age 45, which may portend lower divorce rates later in life, and for their children.” “In fact,” he continues, “closer examination of age-specific divorce rates for the most recent decades shows that the overall drop has been driven entirely by younger women. It seems likely these women, who will reach longer marital durations, and who are less likely to be divorced and therefore remarried later in life, will have lower divorce rates than today’s older women.”
Cohen concludes by highlighting that the women most likely to enter marriage in the first place today are also the women with the lowest “risk profile”—more highly educated, older, and less likely to have been already married. Hence, divorce rates are likely to decrease, even as attitudes toward divorce (as measured by both Gallup and the General Social Survey) have grown ever-more lenient, with more and more Americans indicating that divorce is socially acceptable, and should be easier to obtain.
What does all this mean? Well, for starters, the divorce rate is likely to continue to decline in coming years—a good thing. But on the other hand, as Cohen points out in his abstract, America is also entering an era in which marriage is relatively more rare than it has been in the past, and also more a marker of social class—“representing an increasingly central component of the structure of social inequality.” So while the well-to-do and well-educated experience increasing stability, the poor and working classes are experiencing decreasing stability, and the fabric of American society continues to unravel.
(Philip N. Cohen, “The Coming Divorce Decline,” November 14, 2018, paper to be presented at the 2019 Population Association of America meetings, available at https://osf.io/preprints/socarxiv/h2sk6/.)