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Marriage rates are at an all-time low, new report finds

The 2018 marriage rate is even lower than it was during the heart of the Great Depression.
Another shift bringing rates down: Women are more educated and earn more money than ever before.
Another shift bringing rates down: Women are more educated and earn more money than ever before.Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

With each new generation comes a new set of life priorities, and for today's young people, marriage has tumbled to the bottom of that list.

In 2018, marriage rates were the lowest they've been since 1900, with 6.5 new marriages per 1,000 people, according to a report published Wednesday by the National Center for Health Statistics, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In 2017, the marriage rate was 6.9, about 5% higher than in 2018. From 2009-2013, the marriage rate was consistently 6.8. It went up to 6.9 in 2014 and 2015 and then hit 7 in 2016 before it started declining again.

For context, marriage rates in the Great Depression, from 1929-1933, were never this low. In 1932, they reached 7.9, but by 1946, the marriage rate had more than doubled, reaching an all-time high of 16.4 that year. It fell down to 8.4 in 1958 and stayed steady at 8.5 from 1959–1962.

Fewer couples getting married "has been a long-standing, declining trend since the early 1980s, showing that marriage is less central to the lives of Americans that it used to be," Sally Curtin, the co-author of the report and NCHS statistician, told TODAY via email.

While the data isn't necessarily concerning to Curtin, she did call out that "the record-low marriage rate could have implications for the economic and health outcomes of individuals and families" because research shows "marital status is correlated with health and economic outcomes."

She added that "married couples tend to have more resources, better health outcomes and lower death rates."

There are several factors possibly de-prioritizing marriage for young people. Psychiatrist and bestselling author Dr. Gail Saltz cited financial stress as a major reason.

"Even though marriage can have many economic advantages ... most people feel that the advantages of marriage will work for them if they already have the money to do it," she told TODAY. "If you're struggling ... thinking about supporting a family may seem quite daunting."

Another shift bringing rates down: Women are more educated and earn more money than ever before.

"Women have become more than half the group that goes to college and are rising as wage earners," Saltz explained. "(Women) aren't marrying you to have your money. They're making their own money, and so what is he bringing to the table exactly?"

Women moving into the workforce has also caused the average age of marriage to rise, she said.

Christine Whelan, Ph.D., professor in the School of Human Ecology at University of Wisconsin - Madison, told TODAY she believes that the falling importance of religion in today's society also plays a role, evidenced in part by more unmarried couples living together.

"The idea of first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby — it could be any order you choose at this point," she said. "For the last couple decades, we've seen 'choose your own adventure' when it comes to marriage patterns."

So, is marriage on its way out? Neither Whelan nor Saltz think so.

"Humans remain social beings ... who have the desire to bond, and often it is to one person," Saltz said.

Whelan added that the "traditional marriage" and family structure was never as popular as it was made to seem.

"The breadwinner-homemaker model, that was never the norm for the majority of Americans really at any point in history, except for two years in the 1950s where maybe it went over the 50% mark," she explained. "We've had lots of different family arrangements over the last 100 years."