Almost 90% of men born in 1908 were married by the age of 40. The same was true of men born in 1948.
Since then, however, the proportion of people marrying has been decreasing across all ages. Among men born in 1960, 78% were married by 40; for those born in 1970, the figure is 63%. A similar pattern is evident for women.
This trend has been matched by a fall in the number of marriages, from 415,000 in 1970 to 241,000 in 2010. One reason for this is that men and women have been delaying the age at which they first get married. The average age at first marriage is now 31, compared with a 20th century low of 23 in 1970. But the trend towards delaying marriage does not fully account for the observed changes. Based on current trends, evident from the chart, marriage will never be as prevalent (at any age) among those born in 1970 and 1980 as in previous generations.
Cohabitation offers an explanation for both the rise in the age of people at their first marriage, and the fall in the number of marriages. As recently as 1980, only a third of people had ever cohabited before their first marriage; today, the figure is 80%. This in itself is linked to broader changes in attitudes towards living arrangements and family life: in effect, the role of marriage as a necessary prerequisite to sex and having children has diminished greatly, leading couples to delay the decision to marry, or forsake it altogether.
Commitment issues. The chart shows rates of marriage for men by age and birth cohort in England and Wales.
Since April 2005 same-sex couples have been able to form civil partnerships, giving them the same rights and responsibilities as those under civil marriage. In 2010, there were 6,385 new civil partnerships in the UK, compared with 277,740 marriages. The limited evidence to date suggests that civil partnerships have been more stable than marriages. Of the 16,800 entered into in 2005 and 2006, 1.6% had been dissolved; this compares with a divorce rate of 2.9% for marriages taking place during those same years.