The Divorce Rate Is Finally Declining — and We Have Millennials to Thank for That

Happy millennial couple kiss on their wedding day in a field.
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We’ve been hearing about the alarmingly high divorce rate for what seems like forever now. But a new study from University of Maryland, College Park has some fascinating new insight — and cold hard data — that shows things may finally be reversing. And it’s all thanks to millennials.

The study, authored by Philip N. Cohen and titled “The Coming Divorce Decline,” analyzed the responses from married women submitted in the American Community Survey. In doing so, researchers found that divorce rates fell by 18 percent between 2008-2016, and that drop was largely driven by millennials (AKA those of us born roughly between the early ’80s and early ’00s).

In fact, Cohen says the rate of divorce among people ages 45 or younger has basically leveled off since the 1990s; but the rate of divorce for those over 45 continues to rise.

“One of the reasons for the decline is that the married population is getting older and more highly educated,” Cohen recently shared with Bloomberg. He adds that married women today are “more likely to be in their first marriages, more likely to have BA degrees or higher education, less likely to be under age 25, and less likely to have their own children in the household.” All of these factors, Cohen writes in his study, can often lead to divorce.

“I demonstrate that the trend in new marriages is toward those with lower divorce risks,” Cohen wrote in his study. “The composition of new marriages, along with the shrinking demographic influence of the Baby Boom cohorts, all but guarantees falling divorce rates in the coming years.”

Gone are the days when divorce was viewed as a socially stigmatizing taboo (particularly for women). In recent decades, we’ve watched divorce and separation become increasingly common, with celebs even popularizing trends like “conscious uncoupling” and creative custody arrangements like “bird nesting.” While divorce may have signaled failure or even scandal when we were kids, we now know better. For many couples, divorce is the happier — and healthier — alternative to staying married. Not just for the parents, but also for the kids.

I should know; I grew up as a so-called “latchkey kid” in the 1980’s, when divorce rates were rocketing. Soon after my parents divorced, my mother was forced to take on three jobs to support us. Watching her struggle to break glass ceilings in her professional life while struggling as a single mom left a huge mark on me. So much so, that I swore I’d never marry unless I could be as sure as one can be that divorce wouldn’t end my marriage.

But it seems I’m far from alone. Perhaps this collective fear of divorce, after watching previous generations go through it, is what has spurred millennials to look at marriage through a different lens.

Cohen’s findings seem to dovetail in an uncanny way with my own life. I traveled the world, went to college, and was closer to 30 than 25 when I finally married. We now have three children, a mortgage, and will be celebrating 14 relatively smooth years of matrimony this winter.

“The trends described here represent progress toward a system in which marriage is rarer, and more stable, than it was in the past,” Cohen writes, “representing an increasingly central component of the structure of social inequality.”

Of course, it could also be that life is simply more expensive and uncertain for millennials than it was for Baby Boomers when they were first starting out. The thought of settling down and starting families while also trying to figure out how to pay off crushing student loan debt and manage the rising cost of housing may be a deterrent for many couples, particularly those who are lower-income.

All I know for sure is this: As my own children get closer to the edge of nest and stretch their wings for their first flight, I will most likely encourage them to hold off on laying down roots as long as they can. There is certainly something beautiful in finding your partner when you’re young; but there is also a special wisdom in experiencing the world first and making careful choices before saying “I do.”

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