If you’re a woman of a certain age, it’s virtually impossible to avoid The Bachelorette. Between my college-age sister, my aunt, colleagues, friends, and the Twitterati, I receive regular updates on this season’s Bachelorette and her quest for love among 25 men selected by ABC.
It’s not that I’m in an unusual social circle. The Bachelorette is in its ninth season; The Bachelor, the show’s predecessor, is in its seventeenth. Ratings, if not what they once were, remain high: 7.8 million people watched last week’s Bachelorette episode, the first half of the finale, and the show was the No. 1 trend on Google that day. A surprisingly high number of Americans are invested in whether a woman they have never met can get a ring on her finger.
Pause a moment and consider the irony of a culture that vehemently rejects matchmaking by parents, and yet is fine with TV producers’ performing that service.
Desiree (Des) Hartsock, this season’s Bachelorette, is a nice 27-year-old, and about all you need to know about her is that her favorite book is Eat, Pray, Love and she’s a wedding-gown designer who felt comfortable shopping for (and trying on!) bridal gowns and tuxes on a first date. According to her ABC bio, “More than anything, Desiree’s ultimate dream is to find a love like the one her parents share. Married for 35 years, but together for 40, they’ve always supported and appreciated one another.”
Welcome to the curious appeal of the Bachelor and Bachelorette series: In an era when marriage rates are declining, Americans are fascinated by a show that is unabashedly about finding a lifelong spouse. And these long-running reality series are not the only example of this phenomenon: How I Met Your Mother, a series about a man telling his children about his long search to meet their mother, is about to begin its ninth season.
But if the statistics are any indication, more Americans are like How I Met Your Mother’s Ted Mosby, who has spent eight years pining for a spouse without finding Miss Right, than like Sean Lowe, the most recent Bachelor, who is happily engaged. Americans are getting married later than ever: According to a 2011 Pew Research Center study, the average age is 27 for women and 29 for men.
And overall, marriage rates are declining. That same Pew study shows that 51 percent of adults are married, down from 72 percent in 1960. Bowling Green State University’s National Center for Family and Marriage Research declared last month that the “marriage rate [is at its] lowest in a century,” at 31.1 marriages for every 1,000 unmarried women. (In 1920, the marriage rate was 92.3 per 1,000.) “For the first time in human history, great numbers of people — at all ages, in all places, of every political persuasion — have begun settling down as singletons,” wrote New York University professor Eric Klinenberg in his 2012 book Going Solo.