Marriage, Divorce and the Working Class Blues

Of all the milestones on the road to adulthood, poorer and less well-educated Americans are taking a pass at one of the important — marriage.
The trend began four decades ago, but has become more pronounced as it has become more visible. Since 1970, each cohort of young adults has been less likely to marry than the previous generation. The trend can be attributed to the fact that people marry when they are older, and Pew projects that a quarter of young adults will remain unmarried by 2030 — the highest share in modern history.

Amid ever widening economic inequalities, poorer and less educated Americans no longer marry and build up a nest egg as a but rather build up their household prior to marriage. This appears to be a return to a time when people believed they needed a measure of establishment before walking down the aisle. In other words, marriage has gone from being a way that people pulled their lives together to something they agree to once they have already done that independently.

Commentators at both ends of the political spectrum debate the relationship among marriage, parenthood and poverty, but young people seem to believe marriage is not necessary. This shift could reshape not just American families, but also policies like those around taxes, children and entitlements.

In many ways, the retreat from marriage is the result of evolving gender roles, but the decline in marriage is also a result of the country’s deepening socioeconomic divide. Until a few decades ago, marriage was mostly an economic equation, according to Nobel Prize winning economist Gary Becker. Husbands earned money to support a family; wives ran the household.

The rise of birth control, household technology and women in the work force made marriage became less about economics and more about love, according to historian Stephanie Coontz, the author of Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage.

Educated, high-income people still marry at high rates and stay married, according to economists and demographers who study the issue. Remaining unmarried is more common among the less educated, blacks and the young, Pew found, and so is divorce.

Men remain unmarried more frequently than women — 23 percent to 17 percent. Part of that is linked to the fact that the share of men aged 25 to 54 who are not working has been increasing for 50 years. At the same time, 78 percent of never-married women say that a mate with a steady job is more important than any other quality in a spouse. Pew analyzed the pool of employed, unmarried men, compared with all unmarried women. There are 65 employed men for every 100 women.

The job market is not friendly to men who do not have a college degree and this man doesn’t appear to be a good prospect for women said Isabel Sawhill, co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution and the author of Generation Unbound: Drifting Into Sex and Parenthood Without Marriage.

Yet she said it‘s not entirely an economic phenomenon; it’s also one about shifting social roles. Professional men are not threatened by women who do well for herself professionally she said. On the other hand, the working class man is a little threatened or intimidated by a woman who makes more money than he does and as a result makes more demands.

And as modern marriages have become more about love than about survival, it has become an indulgence that is easier for well-off people to take advantage of, said Justin Wolfers, an economist who has studied marriage and divorce. The benefits of sharing passions are more likely to accrue to people who have the time and money to invest in them, he said.

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