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  • If the most pessimistic models in a new paper are correct, fewer than a quarter of blacks born in 1997 might get married by middle age. Tweet This
  • Family structure is growing in importance as a way that inequality is transmitted across generations, and if the most pessimistic predictions here are correct, we are facing not a slow deterioration but an immediate crisis. Tweet This

It’s no secret that Americans have been getting married later and later, with an increasing share not getting married at all. It wouldn’t take Nostradamus to predict that these trends will continue for a bit.

But let’s ask a more specific question: Among Americans born in, say, 1997, what share will reach age 40—in 2037—without getting married? And don’t forget to make separate predictions for blacks and whites.

I’m not sure I’d place any bets on the answers, but in a new paper for Demography, Deirdre Bloome and Shannon Ang run some complicated modeling and reach a sobering conclusion: “We project steep declines in the probability of ever marrying, declines that are larger among Black people than White people.” If the most pessimistic models are correct, fewer than a quarter of blacks born in 1997 might get married by middle age.

Historically, there’s been a strong correlation between how a cohort acts in early adulthood and how much of it is married by age 40. “Across all cohorts born between 1825 and 1965,” the paper notes, 

the share ever married by age 20–24 almost perfectly predicts the share never married by age 40–44, with one exception: only the cohort reaching age 20–24 during World War II evidenced a higher level of marriage at age 40–44 than expected based on their early delays.

No disrespect, but Gen Z ain't no Greatest Generation. We probably can't expect them to shatter expectations here, though their mating environment is admittedly rather strange these days.

So how are these kids starting out? The authors turn to the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, a longitudinal study that has been following U.S. families for decades. The data run from 1970 to 2015, and the authors focus on folks born between 1970 and 1997, meaning their youngest group was just 18 when last surveyed.

In the following figure, you can see the ages at which different cohorts got married or at least formed cohabiting unions. (The dots represent real data; the light-gray lines are model projections you can ignore for now.) These ages are all climbing, and the climbs seem to be accelerating. 

Source: Deidre Bloom and Shannon Ang, "Marriage and Union Formation in the United States: Recent
Trends Across Racial Groups and Economic Backgrounds
," Demography 57 (September 2020).

But there’s a difference between delaying marriage and forgoing marriage, so the authors try four different methods of projecting where today's young adults will end up at age 40. The methods differ in terms of what variables they use and how they extrapolate from existing data—especially in terms of how strongly they assume current generations will follow previous ones' overall trajectories. The models agree marriage is headed down among both blacks and whites, and that the gap between the two will grow, but they vary in the specifics.

If you just look at basic census data for Americans ages 40–44, you find that the share of non-Hispanic1 whites who remained unmarried at that age rose from 6% to 17% between 1970 and 2018 (these are folks born around 1928 and 1976). For blacks, the share rose from 9% to 40%. The authors’ models loosely track the real trend for the 1970–1980 cohorts, but they diverge as to where the folks born in 1990 and 1997 are headed.

The most optimistic model is a "life-table" one that assumes each generation follows in previous generations’ footsteps. If that model is correct, 75–80% of whites in these later cohorts will marry by 40, and so will 45–50% of blacks. This would be a gentle continuation of current trends, if nothing to celebrate.

By contrast, the more flexible "discrete-time event-history model" predicts the decline of marriage will continue to accelerate. Only 60% of whites from the 1997 cohort marry by 40. For blacks, the share who marry drops to 30% for the 1990 cohort and 23% for those born in 1997.

Whoa—if true.

The authors also offer some analysis of why the racial gap exists and why it matters. People from poorer backgrounds tend to marry less—a gap the authors also predict will grow, as if there wasn’t enough bad news here otherwise—and blacks are disproportionately from poorer backgrounds; so, one might be tempted to think this is all about economics. No matter how the authors run the numbers, however, only a small share of the racial gap is explained by socioeconomic backgrounds.

As the authors note, common explanations of why the decline of marriage hit blacks hardest include a relative lack of employed "marriageable" males, higher rates of interracial marriage for black men, higher incarceration rates, and “exclusion from the physical spaces and social networks where many people find partners.” Figuring out the exact mix of factors should be a high priority for future research.

And why does it matter if marriage declines and racial gaps grow? Well, because two adults can support themselves and any kids they choose to have a lot easier than one can. If the marriage gap widens, so will the economic gap between blacks and whites. In general, family structure is growing in importance as a way that inequality is transmitted from one generation to the next, and if the most pessimistic predictions here are correct, we are facing not a slow deterioration but an immediate crisis. (See also Kay Hymowitz on the work of John Iceland.)

As I said at the outset, I wouldn't take any of these projections to Vegas. It seems almost guaranteed that marriage will continue its decline for some time going forward, but it's way too early to say exactly where kids born in the 1990s will end up. That said, this paper raises the alarm about some very disturbing possibilities and explains why all this matters. And if the authors are right, and we do nothing to bridge the marriage divide, we can look forward to even greater division in American life.

Robert VerBruggen is an Institute for Family Studies research fellow and a policy writer for National Review Online.

1. This reflects the authors’ approach. Because their data began being collected so long ago and follows the same families over time, recent immigrant groups are underrepresented.