As the Canadian Marriage Map 1 illustrates, an increasing proportion of young adults aged twenty to thirty-four are living unpartnered, and those who do marry are marrying at later ages. While many are choosing to live common-law before marriage, or to remain common-law instead of marry, the increase in common-law coupling among young adults is outpaced by the decline in marriage. In short, young Canadian adults are partnering less.
This decline in partnering is evident over several census cycles. Census data in Figure 1 shows that between 1996 and 2016 the portion of Canadians aged twenty to thirty-four who were not living in a partnership rose from about 53 percent to about 59 percent. As young adults age, they are more likely to partner, but even among thirty- to thirty-four-year-olds, about 35 percent are living unpartnered.
Prior to the pandemic, Canada’s fertility rate was at a historic low. Given that the majority of Canadian children are born into couple families and the majority of these couples are married, reversing this trend toward delayed fertility will be unlikely without a corresponding reversal of the trend toward delayed or forgone partnering and marrying.
Why Are Young Adults Partnering Less?
Numerous factors have contributed to the decline in partnering. The pathway to adulthood has become elongated, with young adults reaching the traditional markers of adulthood, such as marriage, children, and home ownership, at later ages. The cost of housing is rising faster than incomes. Many young Canadians are spending longer in school, with increased student debt, but experience uncertain employment prospects. Those with lower educational attainment are even less likely to marry than their peers. One sign of this elongation is that the portion of young adults between the ages of twenty and thirty-four that live with at least one parent has been increasing in every census since 2001. 2 Disinterest in work and education among some young men may be contributing to this trend, while other young adults face barriers to achieving the stable independence they desire.
Economic factors are only one part the equation. Shifting cultural attitudes have reshaped how many young adults approach marriage. Andrew Cherlin, sociologist at Johns Hopkins University, describes that in the past, couples tended to view marriage as the foundation on which to develop other elements of adult life. He argues that couples today frequently view marriage as a capstone, to be entered into once career aspirations and other markers of stability are secured. 3
University of Virginia sociologist Brad Wilcox argues that a “soulmate” view of marriage has been the dominant approach over the last few decades. The soulmate model prioritizes individual fulfilment through intense romantic, emotional connection, in contrast to an “institutional” view of marriage that focuses on aspects of the relationship such as economic partnership, parenthood, and mutual love and support. Yet Wilcox’s research suggests that the institutional model is more stable and more likely to lead to a higher-quality relationship. 4
These shifts in the approach to marriage reflect a larger cultural shift in North America in the way that people engage with institutions generally. Author and scholar Yuval Levin argues that institutions are intended to form people, shaping character and behaviour toward a task or goal. He notes that increasingly institutions are viewed less as a means of formation and more as a platform for self-expression. 5
The shift from understanding marriage as a formative relationship to seeing it as an expressive status decreases the importance of marriage for some young adults who consider other options for individual expression. As illustrated in Figure 2, an Angus Reid Institute survey found that 57 percent of eighteen- to thirty-four-year-olds agree that “marriage is simply not necessary.” For many young adults considering their options today, marriage is a “nice to have,” not a necessity.
Is the Growing Portion of Unpartnered Young Adults a Concern?
A healthy pluralism recognizes that marriage isn’t for everyone. So why pay attention to shifting attitudes toward marriage, its decline, and the corresponding increase in adults living unpartnered?
First, plenty of evidence suggests that stable, healthy marriage is good for society and individuals. 6 For example, such marriages correlate positively with better mental and physical health and lower risk of poverty, which contributes to greater social stability. Children raised in stable married-parent homes show, on average, better emotional, cognitive, and physical health compared with peers in other environments, which makes them more likely to grow up into adults equipped to contribute positively to societal well-being. 7
Declining rates of marriage and partnership also have a number of social implications. One of these is the effect on fertility: the majority of children are born into couple families, and the delay and decline in stable couple relationships contributes to declining fertility.
The decline in partnership is also correlated with rising inequality. Data suggest that individuals with greater educational attainment and access to higher income are more likely to meet, marry, have children, and stay together than their less-educated peers. In addition, these more stable families transfer their wealth and social capital more easily to their children than less-stable families. 8
Canada’s Pre-Pandemic Fertility Problem
Prior to the pandemic, Canada posted a total fertility rate of 1.47, the lowest in the nation’s history. 9 As in many other Western countries, fertility in Canada has been declining for decades, and there are a number of contributing factors. Where children were once an important contributor to the household economy on family farms or in other family businesses, couples today are more likely to desire a sense of financial stability before bearing the cost of raising children.
Unsurprisingly, the same factors affecting partnership trends also affect fertility. The economic and cultural factors discussed above have contributed to delayed and forgone childbearing. Reliable birth control and women’s increased participation in the labour force have also resulted in shifts in the timing and number of children.