If, as President Bush says, we liberals are engaged in a “war on marriage,” then victory is ours! Last week, the Census Bureau announced that married couples are now in the minority of American households. This didn’t happen all at once, of course. It’s the result of a long-term trend that goes back two generations.
If you were to go to any town in America in 1940, pick a house at random and knock on the door (perhaps you were selling subscriptions to Grit magazine), there’d be a ninety-percent chance you’d find a married couple living there. Thirty years later, despite the new sexual freedom supposedly discovered by the Baby Boomers, the chance was still eight in ten. But then something funny happened: between 1998 and today — a mere eight years — the number of homes containing a married couple fell from six out of seven to one in two. The median age of first marriage has risen to twenty-seven for men and twenty-six for women from its historical low in 1950 of twenty-three and twenty. About one-quarter of Americans, or seventy-five-million people, live alone, and while most Americans do eventually get hitched, today as many couples cohabitate as marry. Singledom — and living in sin — are the new norm.
This marks a fundamental shift in the political landscape. Single people are less likely to be happy about paying taxes to support schools, and more likely to approve of keeping families with children out of their neighborhoods and developments. On the national level, it means that conservatives are likely to amp up family-values rhetoric. And on a practical level, it will put a whole new spin on the immigration debate, as our aging population looks to foreign labor to change its Depends.
But what brought about this change? How did we get to the point where more people are saying “I don’t” than “I do”?
First, the decline of the “first comes love, then comes marriage” mentality has paralleled the fall of the middle class. Back in the early ’70s, when my father was my age, he had already married, fathered two sons, landed a good job and bought the house I grew up in. But since then, according to Pulitzer-prize-winning reporter David Cay Johnson’s book Perfectly Legal, real wages have only risen by approximately a nickel. The rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer as businesses insist that everyone from office workers to janitors drive up stock prices by producing more profits with lower wages and less investment.
A while ago, I posted a survey on Fark.com and Craigslist about how economics affect relationships. Responses poured in from around the country. Jen from Indiana succinctly expressed the effect her recent layoff had on her relationship with her boyfriend: “I have less than no money and no job now that my department has been sucked into the corporate hole. . . . I feel like total shit because I have to ask him to buy me food once in a while now — and he’s not in great financial shape either because he’s in school . . . Yeah, I’m pissed.”
While they were dating, our parents and grandparents evaluated each other as potential life partners and helpmates. We, on the other hand, don’t know if we will be working the same job, let alone dating the same person, in a year. If the traditional incentive for a long-term relationship — that is, building a shared life together — is a pipe dream, why commit? As NYU sociologist Richard Sennett wrote in his 1998 book The Corrosion of Character, our society’s clockwork practice of treating people like oranges — eating the pulp and throwing away the peel, to paraphrase Willy Loman — has led to a general decline in long-term thinking. Much like corporations acquire smaller companies solely to bolster their own stock prices, we’ve taken to pursuing relationships based on short-term goals.
Nor is the lot of the married particularly enviable. Despite the prevalent idea that “sharing your feelings” (as my stepmother puts it) is what makes relationships work, economics are still the number-one cause of divorce.
Economics are still the number-one cause of divorce.
A thirty-eight-year-old man from San Francisco responded to my survey thusly: “My wife was my high school sweetheart twenty-two years back, now she’s forty and we have a two-year-old daughter. I work three jobs (accounting by day and teaching at night), and my wife, who is a psychiatrist, also works three jobs. Our marriage is on the brink of doom — we’ve been reduced to cohabitation, pooled financing and parenting. We have no time or energy for intimacy.”
But the reason singles outweigh married couples isn’t that the divorce rate has increased. Despite what supporters of “covenant marriages” claim, divorce has remained stable. Blaming capitalism is also a bit of a cop-out: when you come right down to it, we’re really doing it to ourselves. Entry into the middle class has traditionally meant delaying marriage and child rearing until after years of school and entry-level jobs. The difference is that back then, older men tended to marry younger women. In 1890, for instance, the median age at first marriage for men was twenty-six; for women, it was twenty-two.
Now, however, women play in what used to be the boy’s club — and, like their male counterparts, are postponing family life. A thirty-year-old single woman who’s beginning to worry that her eggs are inching past their expiration date hasn’t been twiddling her thumbs — she’s spent four years in college, two to four years in graduate school and five years working crappy jobs to build her career. Her entire life has been spent climbing the social ladder as fast as she could, but at the age when her grandmother was already a mother of three, she’s only becoming financially independent enough to begin thinking about settling down.
The problem is, who to settle down with? Most people are ultimately rational economic actors, and if you can’t afford to own your own home, it’s cheaper in the short term to live together and share rent but, in the long term, avoid the messy and expensive proposition of divorce by simply not marrying. The whole marketplace of vice so decried by conservatives — internet personal ads, serial monogamy, sex parties, vibrator boutiques, porno chic — may be an appealing alternative to monogamous monotony, but they’re a symptom, not a cause, of the decline of marriage. Where a demand exists in a capitalist economy, people are quick to fill it. If, in the end, we decide to act in “defense of marriage,” we are going to need a program of paternity and maternity leave, affordable housing, guaranteed health care and social security. In other words, it seems that in the end, true family values are cognate with the “liberal agenda.” n°