Breaking Up Is Hard to Count: The Rise of Divorce in the United States, 1980–2010

Abstract

This article critically evaluates the available data on trends in divorce in the United States. We find that both vital statistics and retrospective survey data on divorce after 1990 underestimate recent marital instability. These flawed data have led some analysts to conclude that divorce has been stable or declining for the past three decades. Using new data from the American Community Survey and controlling for changes in the age composition of the married population, we conclude that there was actually a substantial increase in age-standardized divorce rates between 1990 and 2008. Divorce rates have doubled over the past two decades among persons over age 35. Among the youngest couples, however, divorce rates are stable or declining. If current trends continue, overall age-standardized divorce rates could level off or even decline over the next few decades. We argue that the leveling of divorce among persons born since 1980 probably reflects the increasing selectivity of marriage.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The unexpected finding that underreporting was most severe in the decade preceding the survey may result from imputation. In the 2008 survey, just 19 % of divorces within five years of the survey had an imputed date, compared with 52 % of divorces taking place 10 years before the survey or earlier. In 2004, the comparable figures were 8 % and 30 %, respectively.

  2. 2.

    Like the vital statistics, the ACS questions do not capture separation. This could pose concerns for studies of subgroup differences in marital instability (McCarthy 1978; Raley and Bumpass 2003).

  3. 3.

    Compared with the ACS estimates, the vital statistics–refined divorce rates are 18.3 % lower in 2008, 13.2 % lower in 2009, and 14.9 % lower in 2010. In recent years, NCHS has published divorce counts for 44 states and the District of Columbia. To make the NCHS and ACS comparable, we must limit the analysis to these places. In addition, the ACS for a given year must be compared with two years of NCHS data because the ACS is collected continuously over the course of the year, so the reference period for vital events occurring within the previous 12 months could be any time during the current year or the previous year. Therefore, we compare the 2008 ACS with the average of NCHS divorce rates in 2007 and 2008.

  4. 4.

    The composition of the DRA shifted slightly from 1970 to 1990; Figs. 3 and 4 use the 1990 footprint of states reporting age-specific rates (Clarke 1995; National Center for Health Statistics 1985).

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Acknowledgements

Data preparation was supported in part by funds provided to the Minnesota Population Center from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Grants R24-HD041023, R01-HD043392, and R01 HD047283. The authors gratefully acknowledge helpful comments and suggestions of Susan Brown, Larry Bumpass, Andrew Cherlin, Joshua Goldstein, Kelly Raley, Jim Raymo, Robert Schoen, Duncan Thomas, and the anonymous reviewers.

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Correspondence to Steven Ruggles.

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Kennedy, S., Ruggles, S. Breaking Up Is Hard to Count: The Rise of Divorce in the United States, 1980–2010. Demography 51, 587–598 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13524-013-0270-9

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Keywords

  • Divorce trends
  • Union instability
  • Vital statistics