Is Marriage Going Out Of Fashion?

The latest release from the Office of National Statistics shows a decline in marriage, but it’s still the most popular lifestyle in England and Wales

The paper, Population Estimates by Marital Status and Living Arrangements, England and Wales: 2019 records annual estimates of population by legal marital status and cohabitation status by age and sex for England and Wales.

Married or civil partnered remained the most common status in 2019, accounting for just over half (50.4 percent) of the population aged 16 years and over in England and Wales; the proportion is slowly declining over time for all ages except those aged 70 years and over.

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Females aged 70 years and over in particular were more likely to be married or divorced in 2019 than 10 years ago, and less likely to be widowed.

Around 60% of the population were living in a couple in 2019, the majority of these were married.

Cohabiting is more common among younger age groups; 69.2 percent of those aged 16 to 29 years who were living in a couple were cohabiting, while only 4.5 percent of those aged 70 years and over living in a couple were cohabiting.

Marital status

Amanda Sharfman of the Centre for Ageing and Demography, Office for National Statistics said: “We see slow changes in the composition of the population aged 16 years and over by marital status over time. Married remained the most common marital status, accounting for just over half of the population in 2019, but this proportion is steadily declining except among those aged 70 years and over.

“In particular, females in their 70s were more likely to be married than a decade earlier. They were also more likely to be divorced, and less likely to be widowed. This reflects improvements in life expectancy over time, as well as an increase in marriages and divorces in later life.

“Approximately 60 percent of the population lived in a couple, the majority were married but around one in five were cohabiting. This is more common at younger ages; over two-thirds of people aged 16 to 29 years who were living in a couple were cohabiting.”

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“We see steady changes over time in the marital status of the population of England and Wales aged 16 years and over. While there has been a gradual decline in the proportion of the population who are married, the proportion who are single (never married or in a civil partnership) has shown a steady increase.”

In 2019, just over half of the population (50.4 percent) were in a legally recognised partnership (50.2 percent were married with a further 0.2 percent in a civil partnership). An estimated 35.0 percent of the population were single (never married or in a civil partnership), with divorced/dissolved civil partnership and widowed/surviving civil partner accounting for 8.2 percent and 6.5 percent of the population respectively.

Change over time

There are differences in the marital status distribution between men and women, notably a higher proportion of men were single (38.3 percent ) compared with women (31.8 percent).

There are differences in the change over time in marital status between men and women and between different age groups.

Overall, the proportion of men who are married has fallen by 1.9 percentage points compared with a decade earlier, while for women a fall of 1.4 percentage points has been seen.

Conversely the proportion of men who are single has increased by 1.9 percentage points, while for women this has increased by 2.5 percentage points. Notably for women, the proportion of the population who are divorced has increased by 0.5 percentage points and the proportion widowed has decreased by 1.5 percentage points.

These overall changes mask clear differences in the changes in marital status for different age groups. Overall the proportion of the population who are married or in a civil partnership has been declining. This decline is particularly marked in the 50 to 69 years age group where there has been a decrease of 5.5 percentage points (to 67.0 percent) compared with a decade earlier. In contrast, the proportion of the population who are married or in a civil partnership has increased for those aged 70 years and over (54.8 percent, 3.8 percentage points higher than a decade earlier).

Life expectancy

Females aged 70 years and over in particular were more likely to be married or divorced in 2019 than in 2009, and less likely to be widowed. The proportion of females aged 70 years and over who are married has increased from 37.9 percent to 43.8 percent over the last decade, while the proportion of males has remained similar (69 percent in 2009 compared with 68.3 percent in 2019).

These changes reflect that life expectancy has generally been improving at a greater rate for men than for women (National Life tables, UK: 2016 to 2018) and that both marriage and divorce are on the rise at older ages.

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Marriage rates for those aged 65 years and over have increased the most between 2007 and 2017; for men it increased by 31 percent while for women it has more than doubled (89 percent) (Marriages in England and Wales: 2017).

The majority (90.5 percent) of those aged 16 to 29 years were single (never married or in a civil partnership) in 2019. This proportion has been increasing over time as people choose to postpone entering a legal partnership. Marriages in England and Wales: 2017 highlights a steady increase in the average age at marriage for opposite-sex couples since the 1970s.

A greater proportion of males in the 16 to 29 years age group remain single (never married or in a civil partnership) (92.9 percent) than females (88.0 percemt), reflecting the younger age at which women tend to marry. However, this difference has reduced over time suggesting a levelling up of the age at which men and women choose to marry or enter a civil partnership for the first time.

Just over 100,000 people (63,000 males and 41,000 females) were estimated to be married to someone of the same sex in 2019. The number of people in same-sex marriages increased initially following their introduction in 2014 but the proportion has remained relatively consistent over the previous year with people in same-sex marriages accounting for 0.4 percent of the married population.

Legally recognised

The latest data show the number of marriages between same-sex couples in 2017 was similar to 2016, while there was an increase in the number of divorces over the same period.

In 2019, just over half (54.0 percent) of the 193,000 people estimated to be in a legally recognised partnership with someone of the same sex were married. This proportion has increased from 21.3 percent in 2015.

Latest data for 2018 show that civil partnership formation has increased following a large decrease between 2013 and 2015 after the introduction of marriage for same-sex couples in 2014.

The proportion of the population living as part of a couple has changed little between 2009 and 2019. In 2019, the majority (61.3 percent) of the population aged 16 years and over were living in a couple. Around one in four people were not living in a couple and had never been married or in a civil partnership.

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Living arrangements vary by age group. The majority (71.6 percent) of those aged 16 to 29 years were not living in a couple, while the majority of those aged 70 years and over (56.3 percent) were living in a couple.

The marital status characteristics of the cohabiting population also varies by age group. Overall, just over one in five (21.9 percent) of those living in a couple were cohabiting. Among those aged 16 to 29 years this was 69.2 percent, while among those aged 70 years and over this was only 4.5 percent.

Of those who were cohabiting aged 16 to 29 years, less than 1 percent were previously married or in a civil partnership, while the majority (85.2 percent) of those aged 70 years and over who were cohabiting had been previously married or in a civil partnership.

Postponed weddings

Since these data are based on 2019, the impact of postponed weddings and civil partnerships during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic will not be seen.

An ONS Coronavirus (COVID-19) roundup highlighted an estimated 73,600 weddings and same-sex civil partnership ceremonies may have been postponed in England during the three-month period of lockdown restrictions between 23 March and 3 July 2020. Any change in the proportions of the population by marital status during 2020 as a result will be identified in future publications.

So, the latest release from the Office of National Statistics statistics shows that there may be a decline in marriage, but it is still the most popular lifestyle in England and Wales.

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