“Is marriage obsolete?” may have become a hackneyed headline in recent years, but it’s an understandable question. Marriage rates have plunged to an all-time low. Americans are more likely to rate an enjoyable career as essential to a fulfilling life than marriage. Still, the query also signals a widespread misunderstanding about the reality of family life in the United States. Marriage remains a defining landmark in the lives of more well-to-do, college-educated Americans. But it is well on the path to obsolescence only among the less educated poor and working class. Marriage is, in other words, another dimension of the nation’s inequality, one that both explains and perpetuates America’s divisions.
The most well-trod explanation for the marriage gap, and an indisputably correct one, is that trade shocks and automation have devoured the stable, breadwinner jobs that sustained marriages in the past. Joe Lunchbox and his mates clocked in every morning at a local auto parts factory, played on their weekend baseball team, and retired with a comfortable pension. Now their sons spend their working hours at an Amazon warehouse where low pay, an empty savings account, and rumors of imminent automation darken their mood. Whereas their fathers found meaning in supporting their wives and children, their younger sisters and girlfriends now work alongside them earning paychecks that are nearing parity to their own. That would be unambiguously exciting news if it weren’t for the fact that working women who can manage on their own continue to want men who can be financial providers and preferably ones who earn more than they do.
Nevertheless, the precarity of the postindustrial working-class labor market is far from the whole story of the country’s toxic marriage gap. Just as important are the radical changes in our understanding of the age-old institution of marriage, changes that have played to the strengths and aspirations of the well-educated while leaving most Americans stumbling along dead-end paths.
To understand how we got to this point of polarization, it’s best to appreciate why marriage became a universal institution. Early in human history, it became apparent that children were more likely to survive when a mother and father had some kind of quasi-stable union. It was also clear that male competition for mates was a predictable source of conflict within groups. It was in the general interest to have norms that encourage predictable unions. Since the hunter-gatherers, that’s what human groups have done. Marriage customs have varied enormously, of course: polygamy or monogamy, child marriage or adult, arranged or chosen, dowries or bridewealth, and so on. The rules could be harsh. Most societies treated children born outside of socially recognized unions as “illegitimate,” fatherless outsiders with no claim on their paternal name or property. The point was not to “control women’s sexuality” as we sometimes hear, but to insist on the bond between marriage and childbearing by heavily stigmatizing those who strayed from it.
“Marriage is, in other words, another dimension of the nation’s inequality, one that both explains and perpetuates America’s divisions.”
The decoupling of marriage and childbearing that began in the 1960s in the United States and Western Europe, what scholars refer to as the “de-institutionalization of marriage,” represented a radical break with the human past. In 1960, a negligible 5% of American children were born to unmarried mothers, a disproportionate number of them to African Americans. The number for the general population doubled within a decade and continued to climb until plateauing at the beginning of the new century at around 40%. Divorce rates skyrocketed in the mid 1960s and 70s. “Shotgun” marriages started gathering dust in Western culture’s curio cabinet along with bundling boards. Educated feminists and campus radicals were the first to openly rebel against the old matrimonial order. Middle-class boomers were not far behind. By the 1980s, the working class was on board. Inevitably, the number of children living with only one parent mushroomed.
Still marriage didn’t become obsolete. It was re-engineered as a vehicle for the self-expression and lifestyle of individuals rather than the perpetuation and order of societies. More married couples stayed “childfree;” those that didn’t, were more likely to limit their number of offspring. The “only child” family became commonplace. All in all, the number of births to married couples fell by half between 1960 and 1996. As children became less central to the meaning of marriage, couples developed higher expectations for their own relationships. Now a spouse was supposed to be a soulmate, a Platonic missing half, equal and simpatico in every way. Most cultures have rules about the circumstances in which a union may be dissolved; soulmates decide entirely for themselves. When Ronald Reagan signed the nation’s first no-fault divorce into law as governor of California in 1969, he didn’t simply make it easier for couples to split up. He made ending a marriage the purely personal decision of two individuals—or at least one of them—whose emotional connection had frayed.
Now, the soulmate revolution had obvious advantages. The relaxing of traditional rules made it easier for a woman to leave a violent husband or for a husband to leave an adulterous wife, and for both to relax rigid gender roles. Empowered by the pill and legal abortion, unmarried couples could enjoy sexual relations fearing neither shame, judgment, nor an unwanted child. If a child was born to unmarried parents, he was no longer branded filius nullius (son of nobody) and had the same social and legal privileges as the son or daughter of a married father. Same-sex couples eventually entered officially recognized unions. It’s a reasonable guess that the revolution furthered individual agency and, for many people, a sense of control over their lives; some social scientists believe that these correlate with human happiness. True or not, it’s hard to imagine Americans ever going back.
But these gains didn’t prevent the law of unintended consequences that haunts every revolution from leaving its mark. No one anticipated that either freedom from seemingly outdated mating norms or the soulmate ideal would deepen economic and social inequality, but perhaps they should have. Humans being the communal meaning-makers that they are, it was inevitable that Americans would create norms to replace what they had jettisoned, and equally inevitable that those norms would be designed by the more advantaged members of society. Just as elites had been the trendsetters for the de-institutionalization of marriage, they were the ones to coalesce around the new order.
“As children became less central to the meaning of marriage, couples developed higher expectations for their own relationships.”
That new order did not entirely thrown out tradition, but it tweaked it in ways ill-suited to less educated Americans. It asked both men and women to put off marriage and children until they had completed their education and headed down career paths; these days that means staying single until one’s late twenties or thirties. During the single years, people date and party—though the ultimate goal is to find a “serious” relationship. They cohabit for a year or two, followed by an engagement, a lavish wedding and then, only then, start a family (assuming they want to). Instead of marriage being a transition into adulthood defined in large measure by childbearing, it is now a personal “capstone,” to repeat sociologist Andrew Cherlin’s useful term. Extravagant weddings complete with catered dinners, flowers, photographers, videographers, champagne, and limousines are the objective correlative of the couple’s capstone economic and soulmate success. The wedding planning website “The Knot” reports that between the engagement ring (a compulsory purchase by the soon-to-be groom) and the event itself, the average wedding costs just shy of $34,000.
Clearly the capstone model of marriage, with its posh wedding and late childbearing, is a poor fit for lower-income couples. For one thing, they don’t spend their twenties going to graduate school or trudging their way up the first steps of the career ladder. Nor do they see why marriage has anything to do with the timing of motherhood. The capstone ideal has taught them that getting married is about making it, being financially set, and they’re far from that goal. A number of the unmarried mothers interviewed by Kathy Edin and Maria Kefalas in Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage announced that they expected to own a home and a car and to have saved enough money for a “big” wedding with all “the works” before considering marriage.
Because marriage is not in the picture and they are not searching for “the one,” the romantic lives of these couples are more aimless. Cohabitation Nation, the most extensive study of the class divide in cohabitation, finds that unlike more advantaged women who date a year or more before living together, less educated women move in with their partners only a few months after meeting them. Sometimes moving in together is a solution to one of them facing reduced hours or a rent hike. Other times, it’s just that they are having a good time together and why not? Pregnancy often follows; lower-income women tend to use birth control more erratically than their more educated sisters. They tend to describe pregnancy as “something that just happened,” unplanned in public health terms, though not necessarily unwanted. “Wait till you’re thirty or forty to have children?” one woman asks Edin and Kefalas. “I don’t think so!”
The educated middle class has emerged from the 1960s family revolution with a cultural script that keeps marriage and childbearing linked, thereby giving their children a better shot at a stable two-parent home. Working-class men and women, on the other hand, have landed up fully embracing unmarried motherhood. Of course, many mothers and fathers are living together when their babies are born, but cohabiting unions break up at far higher rates. Working-class women don’t appear to have deep concerns about their sons and daughters growing up without their fathers in the house. In fact, they look down on women who marry because they’re expecting a baby as taking a sure path to divorce. “The harshest condemnation is reserved for those who marry because of pregnancy,” Edin and Kefalas write. Divorce rates remain higher among lower-income than higher-income couples, but overall rates have declined markedly since 1980. Strikingly, while nonmarital childbearing has become far more acceptable to younger generations, divorce has become less so.
Less educated couples face additional headwinds because of the de-institutionalization of marriage. Older marriage customs and traditions may have been patriarchal and confining, but their requirements were easily grasped by everyone from a chemistry professor to a janitor. Rather than following a gendered script written sometime in an oppressive benighted past, soulmate couples draft their own roles: who should work outside the home and how much, whether to have a joint bank account or keep their earnings separate, whether to take his name, hers, or hyphenate, as well as how to distribute the never-ending tasks of domestic life.
“Humans being the communal meaning-makers that they are, it was inevitable that Americans would create norms to replace what they had jettisoned, and equally inevitable that those norms would be designed by the more advantaged members of society.”
Most highly educated young men and women have had the advantage of growing up in homes that prepare them for these negotiations. As Annette Lareau showed in her landmark Unequal Childhoods, a comparative study of middle-class and low-income parents, middle-class kids spend their childhood years in highly organized environments. Weeks are plotted ahead on large calendars or kitchen blackboards so everyone in the family can keep track of the soccer games, dance lessons, doctor’s appointments, and family vacations. Lower-income parents don’t see much point in these activities, according to Lareau. They subscribe to a philosophy of “natural growth” where children need little teaching and molding. Moreover, while affluent parents view their children as “conversation partners” who can discuss and opine, lower-income parents are more pragmatic, direct, often giving one-word answers. Middle-class kids argue and explain themselves. If told they can’t play video games for two days after getting in trouble with a teacher, they bargain for one day, and promise to never ever do it again. By contrast, when lower-income children are scolded, “the adult talks; the child listens.” Working-class parents are not as strict as they once were, but it’s still possible that if you question authority, you’ll feel a hard slap across the bottom.
The habits of planning ahead and of “using your words” learned in a middle-class home are power tools in a world where gender relations are largely unscripted. Educated couples are more likely to discuss the timetable for getting serious, living together, getting engaged, and getting married. They “plan, deliberate, mull over and organize their resources, their children and their daily lives,” writes Jessi Streib in The Power of the Past, a study of mixed-class marriages. As we saw, while working-class men and women tend to cohabitate early, with little consideration for what happens next or where their relationship is going, middle-class couples wait a year or more before living together and have a clearer understanding of what their partner expects.
It would be a mistake to ignore the ways economics reinforces these cultural differences. One reason lower-income couples are more laissez-faire may be that their work lives and those of the people around them are more unpredictable. Schedules change, layoffs disrupt planned budgets, overtime possibilities wax and wane, older cars break down, etc. Money anxieties add to stress and conflict. Brad Wilcox and Wendy Wang speculate that because working-class and poor Americans are less likely to own a home or share other assets, there are fewer reasons to avoid a breakup.
But it’s worth remembering that once cash-strapped couples married despite the unpredictable hardships to come. No one thought of a diamond wedding ring as an entrance fee to the institution. Most people assumed that two people together could better withstand the hard knocks life would bring—whether closed factories, injuries, or droughts. That kind of thinking seems to have melted into the thin air of the soulmate revolution.
So here we are in unforeseen territory. The women who can least afford to raise a child are the most likely to be single mothers, and the children who stand to benefit the most from stable homes and reliable fathers are the least likely to have them.