In 1991 the proportion of women in the UK aged 30-34 who had never been married was 18.3 per cent. By the time of the 2021 Census (which took a more inclusive view of commitment and factored in civil partnerships and same-sex marriages), that had trebled, to 54.2 per cent. A woman my age today (I’m 32, thanks for asking) is essentially three times less likely to be married than one 30 years ago.
The figures, published in the same week as the SNP leadership candidate Kate Forbes was opining on her personal views about the immorality of having children out of wedlock, have caused a certain amount of panic. Alex Phillips, a former GB News presenter and MEP for the Brexit Party, tweeted that “society is eroding an institution that curtailed male promiscuity”. Harry Benson, the research director of Marriage Foundation (a charity that does pretty much exactly what you’d expect), told the Guardian that matrimony was increasingly being seen as optional because of reduced social pressure, despite “the psychology of marriage remaining deeply compelling”. Marriage, it seems, is suffering a reputational crisis. As Frank Young of the Civitas think tank argued in the Times, “we badly need to remake the case for marriage as a social good” lest we become “a nation of singletons and cohabitees”.
As a paid-up member of the metropolitan progressive wokerati (I grew up in north London and write op-eds), I have always been sceptical of the idea that there is some special innate benefit in the institution of marriage. It’s not just that research has shown unmarried childless women to be the happiest group in society: once economic considerations are accounted for and you dismiss the view (which Phillips seems to be implying) that women in the 21st century need protecting from men’s sexuality, it’s hard to see the point of it all.
While being in a loving, trusting relationship is positive in itself, many of the other claims are unconvincing. Yes, married couples may be comparatively more financially secure than people who remain single or divorce, but it’s a lot easier to maintain a healthy relationship when you’re not living in a state of financial precarity and heightened stress, especially when children are involved. Does staying married make a couple wealthier, or is it simply that wealthier people are more likely to have the resources that help you stay married? Factor in class, geography and cultural influence, and it’s virtually impossible to separate cause and effect.
Moreover, while it takes a matter of minutes to make a legal commitment to another person (we were in and out of the registry office in under ten), I’ve been on the periphery of enough divorces to know that disentangling yourself is a protracted, expensive and morally draining process. If the falling rate of marriages is matched by a slowing of the divorce rate (which it seems to be), the net result is surely positive: the couples who were going to succeed at marriage still are, but people who aren’t fully sure are holding off, thus saving themselves all manner of pain further on. I’ve long believed that it should be a good deal more complicated and time-consuming to get married, just to give prospective couples a taste of just how hard it is to reverse that decision and make sure they’re really certain about it. There is, after all, nothing to be lauded about staying with someone who makes you deeply unhappy.
But the pro-marriage camp would no doubt call me hypocritical for my scepticism of an institution I’ve willingly bought into, so let’s say they’re right and there is something worrying about the rise in unmarried women. If we want to know what’s driving it, the pernicious woke agenda that is encouraging young people to see marriage as optional in a world that has destigmatised cohabitation, casual sex and simply staying single is only one half of the story. The other half is what life is actually like for those who have just turned 30 in today’s Britain.
The answer is: not great. The unstoppable rise of house prices means that the average age of a first-time buyer in most of the UK is 32.1 (33.8 in London). Even renting is getting much harder – over a quarter of people aged 20-34 live with their parents. Merge that with the marriage data and it looks like people start thinking about getting married about the same age they’re able to sort out a secure living arrangement. Given they’re about to publicly vow to spend the next five or so decades together, it seems quite sensible to get the basics like “where are we going to live” sorted first.
It is certainly true that it is taking longer and longer for generations today to achieve the traditional markers of adulthood – a home, a spouse, kids. And it isn’t hard to see why. In addition to house prices dramatically outstripping real wages (which haven’t grown in a decade), take into account multiple economic shocks in the past few years, exorbitant student debt, insecure work and limited career progression, higher taxes, and the general sense that life as a millennial seems to be just one crisis after another. If the average 32-year-old has only just been able to afford to live alone instead of with their parents or in a houseshare and counts their disposable income in pennies after rent, bills, tax and student loan repayments are subtracted, it’s understandable that marriage may seem a distant dream. In fact, if you’re invested in people’s marriages lasting, it’s vital they get their own lives sorted before tying themselves to someone else’s.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with supporting the idea of marriage (just as there’s nothing wrong with deciding it isn’t for you). But if it really is a social good, reversing the current trend is about more than simply remaking the case. How about remaking society so people heading into their fourth decade can envisage a stable, happy future – solo or with a partner – rather than years of precarious misery?