The Great Recession has played havoc not only with our finances but with what many of us consider the normal course of life.
Young people who have long assumed that they would complete their educations and take their expected places in the workplace and in their communities have had to re-think that one.
Jobs are harder to come by, and often that has meant postponement of other adult markers like living on one’s own and participating in community life. Part of this changing narrative has been speculation that young folks are not tying the marital knot. Maybe it is the expense of getting hitched or maybe it is a reluctance to make a life-long commitment in these uncertain times, but pundits have had a field day speculating about the health and future of marriage in America.
With the recent revelation that the percentage of Americans between 25 and 34 who are married has fallen below the percentage of those who have never married, some have wondered aloud whether marriage as we have known it is on the decline. Add to that, the Pew Research Center’s announcement earlier this month that for the fi rst time college-educated 30-yearolds are more likely to have been married than their less educated contemporaries, and the hand-wringing over the impact of the Great Recession on marriage continued in earnest.
Is American marriage on the decline?
Writing in the New York Times, Justin Wolfers says no, but that like all institutions, it is evolving. Wolfers, an assistant professor of business and public policy at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, says that marriage has remained remarkably steady in our country over the last century and surprisingly, at least to me, unaffected by our economic ups and downs.
Most of us, it seems, do get married at some point. If we look at 40-year-olds instead of 20 and early 30 somethings, 81 percent have tied the knot at least once. This is lower than when marriage rates peaked at 93 percent in 1980, but it is still a higher percentage than most other life experiences we Americans have in common. It is also true that divorce is also somewhat less common, meaning that many of us are married for the long haul.
It is also true, though, that how we operate within our marriages is changing.
Today’s marriage is much different than the marriages of most of our grandparents and maybe even our parents.
The model of the stay-at-home wife and the bring-home-the-bacon husband might have been an effi cient one, though not necessarily satisfying to either party, but it certainly is not the model for most marriages today. Today’s marriages, the Great Recession aside, are far more likely to have both husband and wife in the workplace, and they have more disposable income and more leisure time. Their union is likely based more on commonalities and shared interests than on economic realities and a division of labor.
In addition, couples are indeed marrying later as the hand-wringing statistics indicate, and both partners are likely to have invested in their educations and started careers before they married. Both careers are viewed with equal or at least similar importance. Neither partner is as tied to the home as in past generations, and having a family is more an option than an accident.
It is also true, though, that living together without a marriage certifi cate is also on the rise among young people, and some older ones as well. Some of this may be the sheer economic reality of rent and scarce jobs in these challenging times, and many such couples will eventually get married. In that sense, perhaps the Great Recession is pushing people together instead of keeping them apart.
Wolfers notes that one group for whom marriage does seem to be somewhat on the decline is women with less than a college education. It may be that for them, marriage with a man of similar education is less appealing than going it alone now that few career doors are closed to women. The Great Recession has been particularly cruel to men with little education, and young women may see few reasons to commit themselves to a man with limited career possibilities.
It seems to me that marriage has always been a fl uid institution, ranging from economic and political alliances engineered by family members for couples who barely know each other to today’s concept of marrying for love and the pursuit of mutual interests. How we come into a marriage and how we live within it changes, but marriage remains an enduring institution and our primary relationship for most of us.
I believe that just as long as we human beings want to eat, we will have farmers, that as long as men and women exist on this planet, we will have marriage of one sort of another.