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The average age of first marriage in the United States is 27, but that number may soon quickly rise, as young adults choose to delay marriage and many opt not to marry at all.

A recent study by the Urban Institute has predicted that if current trends continue, more than 30 percent of so-called “Millennials” – defined by the study’s authors as young adults born between 1980 and 1990 – will still be unmarried at age 40.  That’s the highest percentage of any generation in recent history: Only 9 percent of female Baby Boomers and 18 percent of Gen X women were unmarried by age 40, according to the study’s authors.

The study cites several factors the authors believe are driving the declining marriage rate among young adults.  Some are economic: The recession has hit Millennials particularly hard, as they struggle to balance high levels of student debt with low-paying, difficult-to-find jobs.  Combine that with a culture that increasingly tells young people they should be financially stable and well-established in their careers before they get married, and you have a recipe for vast numbers of financially struggling Millennials who may avoid marriage simply because they feel like they’re not ready.

But it’s not simply a matter of financial security or career ambition that leads some Millennials to shun marriage. A recent Pew poll found that many young adults simply don’t see the point.  Only 29 percent of Millennials surveyed by Pew said they believe it’s in society’s best interest to prioritize marriage and kids, compared to 61 percent of people of age 65.  And as non-traditional family arrangements – long-term cohabitation, same-sex “marriages,” single parents by choice, and even polyamory – become increasingly accepted in modern culture, more young adults seem to see traditional marriage as just another lifestyle choice, one of a seemingly endless and equally valid paths from which they can choose.

Disinterest in marriage is not universal among Millennials, however.  The Urban Institute study uncovered striking demographic differences among young adults who choose to marry versus those who do not.  Financially stable, college-educated Millennials appear just as likely as their counterparts in previous generations to marry by age 40 – perhaps unsurprising, since this is the demographic most likely to have a stable income and professional careers by their late 20s to early 30s, the two factors so often promoted as critical to a young person’s readiness to settle down. 

In contrast, lower-educated young adults, particularly racial minorities, are projected to continue their already steep decline in marriage rates.  High rates of unemployment among these groups seems to make men and women more likely to see each other as liabilities – a married couple is less likely to qualify for government aid if one spouse is bringing in income, for example, and under ObamaCare, heath insurance subsidies are easier to qualify for if couples remain unmarried.

According to the Urban Institute’s analysis, whatever the reason for the decline in marriage rates among Millennials, it will soon have a massive impact on the American public policy landscape. 

“The singles are coming,” the study’s authors wrote. “Marital status directly affects policies and programs such as tax rates, eligibility for entitlement programs, and the availability of social safety nets. A rapidly growing single population will bring significant changes in the needs, costs, and opportunities of many policies and programs—changes our nation can adapt to more successfully if it anticipates them.”

“Support for both single-parent families and marriage will be a challenge,” the authors continued. “In a society divided between the still mostly married ‘haves’ and the increasingly single ‘have-nots,’ policies and safety net programs for poor families and individuals must efficiently target the needs of the unmarried poor without disincentivizing marriage for those among the poor who would still marry. Future marriage trends are likely to make this challenge more difficult.“