Fewer young Canadians are getting married

Christina MacDougall places a wedding band on Julio Prendergast's finger as Msgr. Francis J. Schneider officiates their wedding in 2021. Marriage rates are on the decline in North America. (CNS photo by Gregory A. Shemitz)

By Michael Swan, The Catholic Register

[Toronto – Canadian Catholic News] – Marriage in Canada has become the preserve of the middle aged and older. The latest Statistics Canada numbers from the 2021 census show that fewer than one in five Canadians in their 20s are married.

While the married population nearly doubles for Canadians 30 to 34-years-old, even then they are a distinct minority. Just 39.5 per cent of Canadians under the age of 35 are married. Only when Canadians hit 35 to 44 does the married population inch up into majority territory with 57.7 per cent of these Canadians married. Another 14 per cent of 35 to 44 year-olds are in common law relationships, for a total of 71.7 per cent entrenched in “coupledom.”

That leaves almost a third of Canadians in the midst of their lives alone and perhaps lonely.

“It certainly represents a sea change in the type of society we’re going to have,” said St. Jerome’s University sociologist and professor of religious studies David Seljak. “You can observe that it’s going to change the very nature of how these people experience life.”

This pattern has certainly caught the attention of Pope Francis. In his 2016 post-synodal exhortation Amoris Laetitia, the Pope urged bishops to get out and sell marriage in the face of a culture and economic order increasingly hostile to the institution.

“We need to find the right language, arguments and forms of witness that can help us reach the hearts of young people, appealing to their capacity for generosity, commitment, love and even heroism, and in this way inviting them to take up the challenge of marriage with enthusiasm and courage,” Francis wrote.

In his most recent encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis argues that family life is the basis of healthy community and political life.

“Family disputes are always resolved afterwards. The joys and sorrows of each of its members are felt by all. That is what it means to be a family!” Francis observes. “If only we could view our political opponents or neighbours in the same way that we view our children or our spouse, mother or father! How good would this be! Do we love our society or is it still something remote, something anonymous that does not involve us, something to which we are not committed?”

The Pope’s sociological and political instincts about the value of marriage to society are not just the romantic notions of an 85-year-old man, said Cardus Institute program director for family policy Peter Jon Mitchell.

“Marriage tends to be a stable form of family and that stability is good,” Mitchell said. “Not only for the partners, but certainly for the children. There are decades of social science research that suggests stability is good. It does stabilize communities as well. We’re seeing some of that in the social science research on things like social capital and at the community level.”

“What Francis is saying is that commitment to something outside of yourself is also what leads to commitment to community, commitment to the nation and commitment to a global solidarity,” said Seljak. “If you can’t do that in your personal life, you’re not going to do it in your community or in political life.”

But is it fair to ask young people to commit to marriage just as they graduate into a mountain of debt built up through their arduous years of education? Love may conquer their hearts, but how will it fare against the housing market? What wedded bliss is likely in a job market littered with one-year contracts and employers who require commitment from them but make no commitment to them?

“Marriage, traditionally defined, does rely on stable jobs – well-paying jobs – affordable housing,” points out Seljack. “We (boomers) took all of this for granted in this generation, that there were jobs out there to get and all you had to do was work hard and be ambitious. There was housing available.”

Seljack’s children are now the age he was when he bought a house with his wife. That house is now worth eight times what he bought it for.
“I couldn’t have bought this house in my 30s,” Seljak observes.

He worries that his own children may never buy a house.

While the economics of marriage have changed over the last two generations, married life is also lived in a different cultural context, argues Mitchell.

“In the past, marriage was more seen as a foundation on which to build your life. You maybe got a job, then you got married and you kind of built your life from there,” he said.

“You now have a sort of a capstone view of marriage, where people are trying to become financially stable first – secure in their job, perhaps even own property if they can – then marriage is the symbol that ‘We’ve now arrived.’ When we adopt a capstone view of marriage it puts marriage out of reach for some people.”

Throughout the Western world, sociologists have seen that marriage is lived much differently at different levels in the economy, said Mitchell. While the moneyed, educated classes hang onto marriage – contracting marriages more readily and staying in them with greater steadfastness – “it’s declining much faster among those with lower incomes,” said Mitchell.

But the culture of consumerism and individualism has made it harder for young people to see and understand themselves as married people, said Seljak.

“With this slide into subjectivism then, if I become the measure of all things then I am committed to marriage only in as much as it serves my self-identity,” he said. “Therefore, when it doesn’t, then I consider divorce, ending the marriage.”

After hitting a peak in the late 1980s, divorce rates in Canada have retreated and stabilized, reflecting the lower marriage rate.
The Church can’t really turn the tide on marriage, Seljak argues.

“The Church can resist and the Church can promote countervailing trends culturally and structurally, but the Church simply doesn’t have the social power it once had to define the rules of the game,” he said. “The Church should be a witness to its core values of love and commitment to the common good.”