Record-high number of 40-year-olds in US have never been married, study finds

A record number of 40-year-olds in the United States have never been married, and most of them are living alone, according to a new analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data.

The Pew Research Center analyzed Census Bureau data from 2021 and found 25% of 40-year-olds that year had never been married, a sharp increase from 20% in 2010. Many of these individuals lived alone, with just 22% of never-married adults ages 40 to 44 reporting last year that they cohabitated with a romantic partner.

The 2021 data marks a new peak in what’s been a decades-long trend. The share of unmarried 40-year-olds has steadily been increasing since 1980, when just 6% of them had never been married.

According to the data, a higher share of men than women had never married, and Black 40-year-olds were much more likely to have never married than Hispanic, White, and Asian 40-year-olds. Education also seemed to play an important factor, as 40-year-olds without a four-year college degree were more likely to have never married than those who had completed at least a bachelor’s degree.

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Happy newly married couple, left, and sad lonely woman, right

Happy newly married couple, left, and sad lonely woman, right (iStock)

“The overall decrease in the share of 40-year-olds who have married is especially notable because the share of 40-year-olds who had completed at least a bachelor’s degree was much higher in 2021 than in 1980 (39% vs. 18%),” Richard Fry, a senior researcher for Pew, wrote in a summary of the findings. “More-highly educated 40-year-olds are more likely to have married, but the growth of this group has not reversed the overall trend of delaying or forgoing marriage.”

Pew conducted the analysis to examine how marriage rates have changed among 40-year-olds in the U.S. from 1850 to 2021. The data revealed a growing trend of delaying marriage or foregoing it altogether among people born during or after the 1960s.

Pew’s findings echo those of the University of Virginia’s National Marriage Project, which found in a report last year that the median age of a first marriage has increased over the last 50 years, “from 23 in 1970 to about 30 in 2021 for men, and from 21 in 1970 to 28 in 2021 for women.”

The study noted a later marriage doesn’t necessarily mean a better one, reporting that 81% of husbands who married earlier said they were satisfied in their marriages, compared to just 71% of those who married later. As for women, 73% of women who married earlier were satisfied, compared to 70% of later-married women.

Fry told CNN that the Pew report focused on 40-year-olds to reflect the fact that adults tend to “take stock of their lives at the start of a new decade of life,” noting a connection between fertility and marriage. “Some women may want to have children in the context of marriage. Since fertility wanes after the age of 40, 40 is an appropriate age to document marriage outcomes.”

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Happy couple walking while guests throwing confetti on them during wedding ceremony.

Happy couple walking while guests throwing confetti on them during wedding ceremony. (iStock)

According to Census Bureau data, less than 1 in 5 adults had not tried marriage by age 40 in all prior generations of American adults.

However, Fry noted in Pew’s analysis that people do marry for the first time late in life.

“To be sure, we can’t assume that if someone has not married by age 40, they never will,” he wrote. “In fact, about one-in-four 40-year-olds who had not married in 2001 had done so by age 60. If that pattern holds, a similar share of today’s never-married 40-year-olds will marry in the coming decades.”

In a separate report from last month, Pew noted that young adults are reaching key life milestones later than earlier generations, such as achieving a full-time job, financial independence, independent living, and parenthood.

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The report comes amid a decline in U.S. birth and marriage rates that’s been underway for decades. Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that just under 3.7 million babies were born in the U.S. last year, about 3,000 fewer than in 2021.

The CDC also found that birthrates for teens and young women hit record lows since peaking in 1991. Specifically, the U.S. teen birth rate fell by 3% from 2021 to an all-time low last year.

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