Number of Never-Married Americans Hits New Record

Two wedding bands close up
(Image credit: vesna cvorovic, Shutterstock)

The share of American adults who have never been married has reached a record high, according to a new study.

In 2012, one in five people ages 25 and older — or 42 million people — in the United States had never been married, a Pew Research Center analysis found. That marks a dramatic rise since 1960, when just one in 10 adults in this age group had never been married.

The findings are not all that surprising given the decades-long decline in marriage rates in the United States. The Pew researchers said a few trends have likely contributed to the new record. [I Don't: 5 Myths About Marriage]

For example, adults are getting married later in life. The average age of getting married for the first time is now 27 for women and 29 for men — that's up from 20 for women and 23 for men in 1960. And living together without getting married is gaining more cachet. Nearly a quarter (24 percent) of never-married adults between ages 25 and 34 were living with a partner in 2012, Pew found.

Americans are also increasingly ambivalent about the importance of marriage. In the 2013 Pew poll, respondents were asked which of the following statements they agreed with more: "Society is better off if people make marriage and having children a priority," or, "Society is just as well off if people have priorities other than marriage and children." About 46 percent of the participants said they agreed more with the first statement and 50 percent chose the second. (The rest chose neither, or both equally or said they didn't know.)

In another Pew survey earlier this year, about half of never-married people said they would like to wed eventually. Based on census data, Pew researchers projected that when today's younger adults reach their mid-40s and mid-50s, 25 percent of them (another record high) will never have been married.

There were differences in the demographic makeup of never-married adults and married or previously married adults. In general, men were increasingly more likely than women to have never been married — in 2012, the researchers found that 23 percent of men and 17 percent of women were never married, compared with 10 percent of men and 8 percent of women in 1960. 

Today, men with a high school education or less are much less likely to have been married (25 percent never married) than men who have advanced degrees (14 percent never married). Fifty years ago, men of various education levels seemed to have about the same likelihood of getting married.

The opposite pattern was seen in women. Today, across most education levels, about the same percentage of women have been married. But in 1960, women with advanced degrees were about four times more likely to have never been married as women with a high school education or less, according to Pew's analysis.

The percentage of never-married adults has climbed among people of all racial and ethnic groups, but some groups have seen more rapid changes than others. Among black adults, the percentage of never-married adults rose from 9 percent in 1960 to 36 percent in 2012. For whites, the percentage rose from 8 percent to 16 percent.

The new report is based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau and several Pew surveys. The full report is available online.

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Megan Gannon
Live Science Contributor
Megan has been writing for Live Science and since 2012. Her interests range from archaeology to space exploration, and she has a bachelor's degree in English and art history from New York University. Megan spent two years as a reporter on the national desk at NewsCore. She has watched dinosaur auctions, witnessed rocket launches, licked ancient pottery sherds in Cyprus and flown in zero gravity. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.