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The changing shape of marriage, singleness and culture (with bonus statistics)

Demographic data evidences that, since the 1960s, post-industralised societies’ attitudes towards marriage, the significance and shape of romantic partnerships, family formation and the place of singleness in society, have all undergone dramatic modification. Whilst it is important to recognize that unique demographic differentials such as gender, education, ethnicity and religiosity all provide some nuance to these social trends, it is nonetheless true that a general pattern can be observed. Marriage rates have fallen dramatically (in some countries, they have even halved), the median age of marriage for both men and women has universally risen, and the proportion of the population who have never married continues to increase.

Of course, census data – primarily concerned with the binary legal categories of “married” and “not married”— rarely reflects the prevalence of cohabitation between intimately partnered individuals. As a result, the decline in marriage rates (and the corresponding increase in the rates of those who are not married) is unlikely to be quite so dramatic as the raw data might suggest. However, the growth in cohabitation rates has not been significant enough to compensate for the full decrease in marriage rates, especially amongst those in the earlier decades of adulthood. The demographic factor which most accurately evidences this is the lone household. Recent decades have seen a sharp increase in the percentages of people living alone. Not only are more people choosing to live alone, but those who do are more likely to continue in their current living arrangement than any other demographic group. What is more, the tendency to live alone is more likely amongst younger cohorts. Solo living (and with it, singleness) is becoming both more normalised and more permanent.



The crude marriage rate within the United Kingdom peaked at 8.5 marriages per 1000 inhabitants in 1970, but has been in steady decline over the last half a century. By 2000, the crude marriage rate had fallen to 5.2 and just a decade later reached an unprecedented low of just 4.5. Correspondingly, the percentage of adults (aged 16 and older) who are single ‘has increased over time from 29.6% in 2002 to 34.5% in 2015’. Another feature of marital change within the UK has been that when both men and women do marry, they do so at much older ages than their predecessors. For example, in Wales and England the median age of marriage has progressively risen from 24.1 years for men and 22 years for women in 1981, to 30.9 years for men and 29.1 years for women in 2015’. In England and Wales, just below one-third of all 2011 households were solo-households.


Whilst Continental Europe is constituted by many countries, each with its own unique sociological profile and varying demographic data, there is evidence that the general region is exhibiting the similar cultural shifts to the rest of the developed world. For example, in the last fifty years the crude marriage rate for the entire European Union has fallen by almost 50%, from 7.8 per 1000 persons in 1965 to just 4.2 in 2011. The Italian marriage rate has declined sharply since the mid twentieth century – from 7.7 in 1960 to just 3.2 in 2013. During the same period, the German rate decreased by over 50% (from 9.5 to 4.5), and the Spanish by almost 60% (from 7.8 to 3.3). Lone households are amongst the two most common types of all households in the European Union, averaging 31.6% of all households across its member states.


The crude marriage rate in the US has falled from 9.7 in 1967, to a low of 6.9 in 2014. The total percentage of married American adults dropped from 72% in 1960 to just 51% in 2010, whilst the percentage of those who had never married rose from 15% to 28%. In 2011, it was predicted that if current trends continue, ‘the share of adults who are currently married will drop to below half within a few years’. As is consistent with trends in other comparable nations, the age at first marriage in the United States has increased for both men and women. The median age for marriage of both genders has risen by over 3 years since 1990, with woman marrying at 27.4 and men at 29.5 in 2016. The proportion of lone households has grown from 17% in 1970 to 27% in 2012 and this trend is projected to continuing rising at a rate of 1.1% until 2030.


In 1981, 60.9% of the adult Canadian population were married, in 2011 that figure stood at 46.4%. This equates to a 44% increase in the proportion of the population who were unmarried. Not only is the overall number of people choosing to marry decreasing, but the median age of marriage has also increased by over 2 years since 1972. Of particular interest is the proportion of unmarried young adults aged 25 – 29, which rose from 26.0% in 1981, to 73.1% in 2011. In 2011 – for the first time in the nation’s history -- there were more single person households than couple households with children.


In the late 1980s, 79% of Australian boys and 86% of Australian girls would go on to marry. At the turn of the century those probabilities had fallen to 69% and 74% respectively. The numbers of “never married” Australians swelled by 13% in the five-year period between 2006 and 2011 alone. There has also been a significant increase in the median age of marriage for Australian citizens, from 21 for women and 23 for men in 1975,[17] to 28.5 for women and 30.1 for men in 2015. The percentage of Australian single person households has increased by 300% since the mid-twenieth century, and in 2015 almost one-quarter of all Australians live alone.


Marriage rates in New Zealand have fallen substantially in recent decades with a drop from 8.01 in 1961 to just 4.59 in 2011. The median age of marriage for both genders has also increased substantially, from 21.3 for women and 23.6 for men in 1970) to 28.7 for women and 30.2 for men. The 2013 census revealed that 23.5% of all New Zealanders live alone.


Japan’s marriage rates are downward-spiraling. In the early 1970s, the marriage rate per 1000 of the Japanese population hovered at just over 10.0. Just 45 years later this figure has almost halved, with a 2015 crude marriage rate of just 5.1. Not only have a third of Japanese people under the age of 30 had never dated, 25% of Japanese women in their early 20s today will not marry with many Japanese not only avoiding marriage, but romantic and sexual relationships altogether. Two recently developed cultural ideologies evidence this – “sekkusu shinai shokogun” or celibacy syndrome, and “soshoku danshi” (literally, “grass-eating men”), a term used to describe the new category of heterosexual men who consider relationships and sex unimportant. 32.6% of all households in Japan are occupied by just one person.



Australian Bureau of Statistics, "Census Factsheet- Marital Status", (Australian Capital Territory: ABS, 2011),$file/Census-factsheet-australia.doc.

Australian Institute of Family Studies, "Marriage in Australia", (2013),

Australian Bureau of Statistics, "The Changing Nature of Marriage in Australia", (Australian Capital Territory: ABS, 2015),

Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, "National Marriage and Divorce Rate Trends", (2015),

Eurostat, "Eurostat: Crude Marriage Rate, Selected Years, 1960-2014 (Per 1000 Inhabitants) " in Statistics Explained, ed. YB16.png (2016).

Eurostat, "Marriage and Divorce Statistics,"

Office for National Statistics, "Population Estimates by Marital Status and Living Arrangements, England and Wales: 2002 to 2015", (England 2016)

National Center for Health Statistics, "100 Years of Marriage and Divorce Statistics: United States 1867-1967", 21, (Rockville, Md.: National Center for Health Statistics, 1973),

Statistics Japan, "Statistical Handbook of Japan", (Tokyo: Statistics Bureau: Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, 2016),

Statistics New Zealand, "Demographic Trends: 2012," in Excel, ed. Civil Union and Divorce Tables Marriage (2013).

Statistics New Zealand, "Marriages, Civil Unions and Divorces: Year Ended December 2014", (5th May, 2015), MarriagesCivilUnionsandDivorces_HOTPYeDec14.aspx.

U.S. Census Bureau, "Estimated Median Age at First Marriage, by Sex: 1980 to the Present," in Excel, ed. Table MS-2 (


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