One Quarter of 40-Year-Olds Have Never Married

By Alex Chediak Published on July 5, 2023

As of 2021, one quarter of 40-year-olds in the United States had never married. That’s a record high, according to a Pew report released last week. It’s up from 20% in 2010. In 1980, it was only 6%.

Are folks living together instead of marrying? In some cases, yes. But for the most part, no. As of last year, only 22% of never-married adults ages 40 to 44 were cohabiting.

Will never married 40-year-olds ever tie the knot? Well, predictions are hard. Especially about the future. But only about one-in-four 40-year-olds who had not married in 2001 had done so by age 60. Meaning most had not married.

So, to put it bluntly, if you’re not married by 40, the odds are even that you never will be.   

That’s concerning. Marriage goes along with higher levels of happiness, longevity, health, and wealth. Especially for men. Married households also provide the most stable environment for raising kids. Given the steep decline in marriage, it’s not surprising that we’re at just 1.7 births per female. That’s well below the replacement rate of 2.1.

Marriage Still a Milestone? 

Marriage was once an expected milestone, one of several markers of adulthood. Along with things like getting a job and securing financial independence. Today, everything seems to be taking longer. Sure, more people need training after high school to establish themselves. But that alone can’t explain why the average age of marriage is now 30 for men and 28 for women. Check out these differentials among 25-year-olds, 1980 vs. 2021:

In terms of work and finances, 25-year-olds are close to where they were in 1980 (-7 and -4). Even though far more people now go to college and graduate school.

But what’s up with the 42% drop in the marriage rate? Yeah, we can talk about birth control or the loss of Christian cultural influences. These have contributed to the decoupling of sex and marriage. There’s also the acceptability of cohabitation — even though social science data shows it’s more of a breeding ground for divorce than a preparation for marriage.

But behind these trends is a complete shift in mindset that puts marriage into a “someday, maybe” category as opposed to a goal worth pursuing with intentionality and care. We are rejecting God’s good design for our species.

Wrong-Headed Thinking 

As Dr. Brad Wilcox put it, “Young adults today are putting a lot more focus on education and work than they are on marriage and starting a family.” They know that the former will affect their success. But they don’t connect the dots on how a lifelong commitment to one person will be the single greatest predictor of their long-term happiness.

Our society emphasizes self-creation. By self-creation, I mean the idea that we can be who or whatever we want. Human nature is moldable. It’s not a fixed reality, with intrinsic authority over us. We don’t need to conform ourselves with how God made the world and to His designs for our flourishing. Darwin, Nietzsche, and others taught us to reject the former and therefore the latter. We establish our own truths. We write our own stories.  

Our society also emphasizes freedom. Any commitment limits freedom. A lifelong marriage to one person really cuts off your future options. Fear of missing out on someone better, or of making a mistake with something so permanent, these provide strong headwinds to marriage.

But these changes impose a cost. It’s toted up in what the U.S. Surgeon General recently called Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation. Americans today have fewer friendships. We have more difficulty investing in people. We want community, but that means ceding some of our autonomy. Love requires sacrifice, but joy is found on the other side. We’ve forgotten that. Secular modern folk cannot comprehend that it’s only in giving something up that you acquire something far greater and more lasting. Lose your life and you’ll find it.

A Christian Vision for Marriage 

In Christian circles, we’ve had the understanding that celibacy is a unique calling that empowers undistracted service to Christ and the world (see I Corinthians 7). It’s to be held in honor, not contempt. But it’s also been understood throughout church history that most Christians would marry and should marry. In doing so, Christians would experience at least three blessings. One, a measure of protection from sexual immorality. Two, deep companionship in together reflecting God’s image as a male-female, one-flesh union. Three, the gift of children, at least in most cases. These children can be raised to love Jesus, bless society (contributing to the tax base), and take care of Mom and Dad when they’re old.

There is a power within marriage to form us into the men and women that God designed us to be. Many have noticed that marriage revealed to them a level of selfishness they never knew they had. There’s an enormous, positive, character-shaping influence that comes from having another person intimately involved in your life. The intertwining of the two lives forces each to give at a deep level, and in giving, to receive. As C.S. Lewis once said, “I become my own only when I give myself to another.”

We need to speak of this power to the young adults in our circles, to celebrate strong marriages, and to help more households be formed and formed well. 

 

Alex Chediak (Ph.D., U.C. Berkeley) is a professor and the author of Thriving at College (Tyndale House, 2011), a roadmap for how students can best navigate the challenges of their college years. His latest book is Beating the College Debt Trap. Learn more about him at www.alexchediak.com or follow him on Twitter (@chediak).

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