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Which Last Longer in America: Companies or Marriages?

Around the time they were joining FiveThirtyEight, two of my new co-workers got engaged (not to each other), and one co-worker got married. It got me thinking: Which lasts longer, the average American business or the average American marriage?

I took two datasets — one from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that tracked businesses from 1994 to 2010, and the other from the Department of Health and Human Services that tracked marriages from 1995 to 2010.

Sometimes, it’s good to not have any conscious assumptions about what the research will say (if you think you know, make a note of your assumption so you don’t revise it at the end of the article). In this case, I had no idea whether businesses had higher survival rates than marriages.

The five-year verdict: 54.7 percent of businesses formed in 1995 were operating five years later, compared with 80 percent of marriages formed the same year. As far as these statistics go, the 20 percent of marriages that didn’t survive were “dissolved by divorce, separation, or rarely, by death.”

The 10-year verdict: By 2005, 36 percent of businesses were still kicking; 67 percent of marriages had held.


So, it looks like marriage wins. The full data shows that marriage survivability changes with age (older couples stay married longer), the presence of children (you have a better chance of staying married if you wed before having a baby) and educational level (87 percent of men with a bachelor’s degree are still in a marriage five years later, but only 79 percent of those without a high school diploma can say the same).

I also wondered whether we could add some nuance to the business data. We can. The Bureau of Labour Statistics breaks down business longevity by sector and state. So, do some businesses last longer than American marriages? (Note: The business-survival data is for “establishments” — a single physical location — not for parent businesses. So, if your local Wal-Mart opened in 2005, it would show up as a nine-year-old establishment even though it’s part of a 52-year-old corporation.)

From retail to gas extraction, none of the 19 sectors we looked at had an average life span longer than the average marriage. Management companies have the best survival rates, with 66 percent of companies formed in 1995 making it to the five-year mark (compared with 80 percent of marriages). Even locality didn’t make a big difference; no state had business-survival rates that came close to surpassing national ones for marriage.

But it might interest you to know that one in three U.S. businesses outlive the average Latvian marriage. Latvia has one of the highest divorce rates in the world, and the average marriage formed there in 1995 had resulted in divorce 10.2 years later. Since then, marriage’s durability in the Baltic state has improved slightly. By 2012, married couples had been staying together for 14.3 years before divorcing.

Did the numbers match your expectations? Let us know in the comments below.

Mona Chalabi is data editor at the Guardian US, and a columnist at New York Magazine. She was previously a lead news writer for FiveThirtyEight.