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Will anyone propose this Valentine's?

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Mark Easton | 10:19 UK time, Friday, 12 February 2010

Items you are likely to receive this Valentine's Day:
Bears in love  • a scarlet heart-shaped balloon
  • a pink furry gonk which winks
  • an innuendo-laden card

Items you are unlikely to receive this Valentine's Day:
  • an engagement ring
  • the promise of life-long faithfulness
  • a wedding invitation

Love may be in the air, but commitment is out of fashion. Figures released this week show that marriage in England and Wales is at its lowest ebb since records began in 1862.

Marriages, United Kingdom, 1951 - 2008

The point at which tying the knot became "so last year" can be identified from marriage-rate data. It was 1985. Up to then, going right back to the time of the American Civil War, the marriage rate for men had hovered between about 50 and 80 in every 1,000 single blokes. After 1985, the rate never peaked above 50 again - now having fallen to just 21.8. It is the same story for women [76Kb PDF].

Marriages and General Marriage Rate (GMR) for males and females, 1980-2008, England and Wales

It is often assumed that this collapse in marriage has coincided with a high divorce rate. Actually, the reverse is true. The divorce rate is currently at its lowest level for 29 years.

Divorce rate: England and Wales 1971-2006

Why? Well, a plausible explanation is that those that do get married these days - a dwindling proportion - are those most determined to make a go of it. The connubial ranks are an increasingly committed bunch.

Sad old balloonIf this is the case, it presents something of a paradox: encouraging more people to wed may actually push up the divorce rate. You might be able to use the tax system to promote marriage, but legislation is not particularly good at inspiring faithfulness.

When the balloon has sagged, the gonk has lost its wink and the genitalia gag has been dropped in the recycling, will those Valentine promises of love everlasting still survive?

Update 15 Feb: I thought it might be interesting to plot the male marriage-rate data going right back to the first statistics in 1862.

Male marriages per 1,000 unmarried men

Quite a fascinating story is revealed, I think.

The first two peaks in 1915 and 1920 must reflect the fact that millions of unmarried young men were killed in World War I, pushing up the rate.

The next spike in the marriage rate comes just as World War II begins, perhaps reflecting young couples' desire to get hitched before servicemen headed off to fight.

It is interesting that the line then rises through the sixties to another peak in 1972. There was a more committed aspect to the sexual revolution than one might have assumed.

After that point it has been almost all downhill, as discussed above.


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