Viewed from some angles, marriage appears to be on its way out – even in a comparatively religious society like America’s. Writing for the Atlantic, Richard Reeves charts a precipitous decline:
“In 1960, more than 70 percent of all adults were married, including nearly six in ten twentysomethings. Half a century later, just 20 percent of 18-29-year olds were hitched in 2010. Marriage was the norm for young America. Now it’s the exception.”
But look more closely at the statistics and a different picture emerges. Firstly, much of the shift is explained by young Americans putting-off marriage rather than never getting married. Secondly, marriage is becoming the preserve of the well-to-do:
“Matrimony is flourishing among the rich but floundering among the poor, leading to a large, corresponding ‘marriage gap.’ Women with at least a BA are now significantly more likely to be married in their early 40s than high-school dropouts…
“During the 1960s and 1970s, it looked as if the elite might turn away from this fusty, constricting institution. Instead, they are now its most popular participants. In 2007, American marriage passed an important milestone: It was the first year when rates of marriage by age 30 were higher for college graduates than for non-graduates.”
While marriage rates have fallen away in all income brackets, the extent of the decline is limited among the rich, but progressively greater as one goes down the income and education scale.
This divergence is a significant driver of inequality:
“…two-parent households are less likely to raise children in poverty, since two potential earners are better than one. More than half of children in poverty—56.1 percent, to be exact—are being raised by a single mother.
“…children raised by married parents do better on a range of educational, social and economic outcomes.”
Richard Reeves argues that among higher income groups marriage has been reinvented as a vehicle for “high investment parenting”:
“When it comes to the most basic measure of parenting investment—time spent with children—a large class gap has emerged. In the 1970s, college-educated and non-educated families spent roughly equal amounts of time with their children. But in the last 40 years, college-grad couples have opened up a wide lead, as work by Harvard’s Robert Putnam (of Bowling Alone fame) shows. Dads with college degrees spend twice as much time with their children as the least-educated fathers.”
Crucial to this model of marriage is the idea that both parents share responsibility for “parenting, home and earning.” It is, therefore, “liberal about adult roles, conservative about raising children.”
Reeves argues that Americans with fewer educational qualifications are more likely to hold to traditional notions of the male breadwinner and the female caregiver – which are difficult to put into practice when the economic position of working class men has eroded so badly and when women, by choice or necessity, are more likely to be in work.
But if the idea of marriage as a more equal partnership has worked so well for the affluent and educated, then why isn’t as popular among other social groups?
In focusing on cultural attitudes, Richard Reeves shies away from an economic explanation, when the ‘marriageability’ of men is surely crucial to any form of lifelong partnership. However, he is on the right track when he says that “the elites running our public institutions aren’t abandoning marriage: but maybe they aren’t encouraging it either.”
Indeed they are not. Though they choose marriage for themselves – and can see their children benefit as a result – they refuse to make a public stand for modern matrimony.
In the old days the elites were often guilty of failing to practice what they preached. These days, it is the other way round.