It's no secret—Americans are a little obsessed with divorce. Pick up any tabloid and you'll see news about the latest celebrity split. Films like Marriage Story and Manchester by the Sea feature divorce prominently and receive countless awards. But are couples as likely to get divorced as pop culture publications make it seem?
Ask most Americans, "what's the divorce rate in the US?" And you'll probably hear something like "50 percent?" In return. In truth, the US divorce rate has been steadily decreasing for decades—at least, among certain demographics. Today, we're taking a deeper dive into the divorce rate in the US (and what trends we can expect to see in the future).
What's the Millennial Divorce Rate?
The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is responsible for tracking the US divorce rate and uses a metric called the crude divorce rate (number of divorces per 1,000 people) to track the prevalence of divorce in the US.
In the 1980s, the US divorce rate peaked at around 5.9. There were two major causes for the relatively high divorce rate in the 80s:
- States started offering no-fault divorce. In the 1970s, most US states introduced no-fault laws for divorce, enabling couples to file for divorce by simply citing "irreconcilable differences." Prior to the introduction of no-fault laws, spouses had to cite a specific "fault" (adultery, domestic violence, felony conviction, etc.) one or the other committed to qualify for a divorce. Allowing spouses to file for divorce without citing a specific fault greatly increased the number of divorce filings.
- Second-wave feminism emerged as a popular philosophy. The relative popularity of feminism inspired more women to file for divorce than in the past.
If you ever hear someone say "around 50% of American marriages end in divorce," they're citing the divorce rate from the 80s. However, the current divorce rate in 2020 is actually much lower. The crude divorce rate today sits at around 2.9, indicating that yes, Americans do get divorced less often in the 21st century than they did in the 80s.
It's important to know that the CDC uses a variety of sources, including state-reported marriage and divorce statistics, to calculate the divorce rate. However, California (the most populous state in the nation) always gets omitted from these statistics due to state laws. In other words, the CDC divorce rate may not be perfectly accurate, but it is a pretty good indication of how many Americans file for divorce over time.
However, that 2.9 crude divorce rate doesn't tell the whole story. A 2017 study by the Pew Research Center found that among Americans 25-39 years-old, the divorce rate dropped by 21% compared to the 1990s. However, for older demographics, the divorce rate actually increased. The divorce rate among 40-49 year-olds and 50+ year-olds shot up by 14% and a whopping 109%, respectively.
News organizations across the country cite that study as evidence millennials are less likely to get divorced than baby boomers or gen Xers, but that may not be accurate. Let's cover some complicating factors:
Millennials Get Married Less than Previous Generations
The marriage rate for baby boomers under 40 was around 91%. Among millennials, that figure has dropped to only 70%—a significant decline.
Millennials are cohabiting with their partners more and getting married less. That drives down the sample size of married millennials, which could result in a lower divorce rate.
When Millennials Do Marry, they Do it Later
Additionally, the median marriage age keeps rising. Since 1990, the median age at first marriage for men and women has increased by 3.4 and 3.5, respectively. The median man now ties the knot around 29.5 years old, and the median woman does it at 27.4 years of age.
Millennials put off marriage for various reasons. Many don't want to get married until they're financially stable, and millennials make 20% less money on average at every stage of their careers than baby boomers when accounting for inflation. Couple that with a relatively higher cost of living, and it simply takes longer for millennials to get established enough to feel comfortable settling down.
Millennials also generally display less favorable views of marriage as an institution than their parents. They're more secular on average, and many simply don't care as much about having a church ceremony or formalizing their union with their partner. Those who do get married do so with a more practical outlook, which is probably why millennials also get more prenups than previous generations.
The Verdict... Isn't in Yet
Here's the truth. We need to wait longer to see if millennials really have a lower divorce rate than their parents or previous generations.
The average millennial at the time of the Pew study was around 30. Considering the median marriage ages we explored earlier, that means most of the millennials included in the study hadn't been married for very long. If the staggeringly high divorce rate for 50+-year-olds is anything to go by, we'll need to wait at least another ten or 15 years to get an accurate picture of the millennial divorce rate.
It will also be interesting to see how COVID-19 impacts the millennial divorce rate. Contract website Legal Template reported that sales for divorce contracts from March-July of 2020 increased by 34% compared to the same period in 2019.
It's not surprising that COVID would cause the divorce rate to spike. Money issues are a common marriage-ender, and more than 40 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits since the start of the pandemic. Couple financial instability with spouses being cooped up at home together 24/7 as a result of stay-at-home orders, and you've got a recipe for failing marriages.
At The Law Office of Alexandra White, we can help you dissolve your marriage. We'll protect your rights and help you pursue an ideal outcome in your divorce.
To schedule a consultation with our team, contact us online or via phone at (303) 647-4245.