President's Report: Is marriage becoming passé?
Most people realize that marriage rates have declined in the United States during the last several decades. In fact, the share of adults who have never married is at a historic high. Part of this trend is due to a rise in the age at first marriage. But nonmarital cohabitation is common these days, and the percentage of children born outside of marriage has surged. These trends have led some observers to claim that marriage is becoming passé—an old fashioned institution that is increasingly irrelevant to the lives of most people. The actual situation, however, is more complicated.
Consider the fact that the majority of Americans today, as in the past, see marriage as valuable and worthwhile. Attitude surveys reveal that most single people want to marry, and most would prefer to raise their children in a married-couple family. But if people generally hold positive views about marriage, then why are so many people avoiding it?
Part of the answer to this question involves the economy. Wages have eroded substantially in recent decades for individuals without a college education (especially men), and most of the decline in marriage has occurred among people without college degrees. Ethnographic studies reveal that many unwed parents would like to be married, but their precarious financial circumstances make matrimony seem out of reach. In contrast, among those with college degrees, salaries have remained high, marriage continues to be popular, and the great majority of children are born within marriage. Moreover, among college-educated couples, divorce rates are comparatively low, and most marriages last a lifetime. Clearly, the deterioration of economic opportunities for those without college degrees has played a major role in the decline of marriage.
But if this is true, then what about the Great Depression of the 1930s? Despite high levels of unemployment and widespread economic hardship at that time, cohabitation was rare, most people married, and the great majority of children were born within marriage. If the economy is so important, then why did the Great Depression have such a modest effect on marriage?
The answer to this question lies in culture. Marriage remained strong during the Great Depression because, at the time, American culture simply did not allow for other options. Living together was shameful, as was having children outside of marriage. People were strongly motivated to avoid these stigmatized behaviors, and marriage was the only game in town, even for poor people. In contrast to the 1930s, alternatives to marriage are more socially acceptable in the 2000s. Most people these days view living together as perfectly normal, and having children outside of marriage has lost most of its stigma. Although people continue to hold positive views of marriage, alternatives to marriage have become respectable.
The decline in marriage in recent decades, therefore, has been due to the loss of well-paying jobs among people without college degrees, combined with a culture that is more relaxed about alternatives to marriage. It is only when both conditions exist that marriage declines. Despite the fact that alternatives to marriage are readily available to college graduates these days, most continue to marry, partly because it is their preferred option and partly because they have the economic resources and financial security to support a married lifestyle.
These considerations suggest that marriage is not passé or irrelevant to most Americans. Marriage is not for everyone, of course, and the fact that individuals who choose not to marry are no longer viewed as unfortunate or deviant has been a positive development. But although economic hardship has put marriage out of reach for many Americans, it remains the arrangement of choice for intimacy and childbearing for the majority of people who can afford it. Moreover, recent trends in the legalization of same-sex marriage have made it available to an even broader range of people.
Helping young people achieve the economic security that will allow them to marry, should they desire it, is a current policy challenge. Given the pervasive, deleterious effects of globalization and technological change on the labor market, this will not be easy. Ultimately, however, helping men and women without college degrees to find well-paying jobs is the strongest pro-family—and pro-marriage—policy that we can imagine for our times.
Although my short analysis is necessarily lacking in nuance, interested readers might like to look at two recent, informative, and thought-provoking books for more details. Both demonstrate how growing economic inequality in the United States (and other countries) is shaping people's options for intimacy, marriage, and child bearing.
Carbonne, JJ., & Cahn, N. (2014). Marriage Markets: How Inequality is Remaking the American Family. New York: Oxford University Press.
Cherlin, A. J. (2014). Labor's Love Lost: The Rise and Fall Of The Working Class Family In America. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
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