An Update on Marriage in America

Jun 25th, 2011 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

One of the major themes of Issues in Perspective is the centrality of marriage as an institution.  The health of this most basic of all institutions says much about the health of the larger culture.  In this Perspective, I want to provide an update on the health of marriage in 2011.

  • First, we have long known that the birth control pill has not been positive for marriage in America.  The research and conclusions of Mark Regnerus of the University of Texas are most helpful in seeing the connection between the pill and the health of marriage in America.  [His book is entitled, Premarital Sex in America:  How Young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think about Marrying.]  Before the advent of birth control pills, sex and marriage were closely linked.  Premarital sex was much less common because women typically insisted on a commitment of marriage before having sex?and men were often willing to make that commitment.  But that link is now broken?sex without marriage is common, for ?the price of sex is pretty low,? Regnerus argues.  Low commitment or really no commitment in terms of sexual hookups are common, while high-commitment is postponed, often for decades.  Women are marrying later, often into their thirties, and are better educated and financially more autonomous.  Therefore, men are no longer as essential to the welfare of a family.  In one very real sense, men are becoming obsolete to women, especially to those who are independent and often quite autonomous.  This is shown by the following statistical comparison:  In 1986, only 27% of women in their late 20s were still unmarried.  In 2009, that statistic jumped to 47%.  For men, of all races, they were unlikely to be married until their 30s, while black men wait until ages 35 to 39!
  • Second, for the first time in American history, married couples have dropped below 50% of all American households.  Married couples represent just 48% of American households, far below the 78% in 1950.  [There are 37 states, plus the District of Columbia, in which married couples make up fewer than 50% of all households.]  According to a recent report by the Brookings Institution, ?as women moved into the work force, cohabitation lost its taboo label and as society grew more secular, marriage lost some of its central authority.?  Throughout most of American history, marriage defined gender roles, family life and a person?s place in society.  That truth no longer seems to apply.  Women with college degrees are now more likely to marry than those with just high school diplomas, the reverse of several decades ago.  The new pattern for college-educated women seems to be marrying later in life and then to stay married.  By contrast, women with only a high school diploma are increasingly opting not to marry the fathers of their children, whose fortunes have declined along with the nation?s economic opportunities.  In addition, demographics are affecting the state of marriage.  Americans are living longer than ever, so households now include a growing number of elderly singles.  Finally, other changes in the state of marriage include 41 states that showed declines in traditional households of married couples with children.  In 2000, married couples with children were fewer than 20% of all households in just one state, plus the District of Columbia.  Now they are less than 1/5th in 31 states.  Overall, the largest change for the decade was the jump in households headed by women without husbands?up 18% in the decade.
  • Finally, marketing and promotional specialists understand that 85% of the buying decisions in the US are made by women.  Apparently, the purse strings of the American economy are held by women.  For that reason, some are now calling America the ?Sheconomy.?  Women today are not only the chief purchasing officers of the culture, they now make up about half of the workforce:  49.9% of all nonfarm labor jobs are female and 51.5% of high-paying management and professional positions are female.  In addition, college graduation rates indicate that these percentages will only grow?for every two men who graduate from college, three women do.  As Belinda Luscombe argues in an important study published by Time, ?Wives? education and earning power have changed the relationship they have with their family finances as well as their families.  It?s not his money she?s spending; it?s their money?or hers.  Similarly, the one-way relationship between consumers and the mainstream media has been overturned by social networking.  Women?and men too?don?t have to wait for Big Media?s attention; they?re taking their stories straight to the public, and the media are following them.  Midas and Best Buy, after discovering that steering their business toward women is less like changing the oil and more like reinventing the lightbulb, transformed their relationships with their customers, letting them see more of the guts of the operation and weigh in on changes.  If women can?t get a place in the corporate inner sanctum, then they?re just going to start running companies from the outside?where the money is.?

What does all this mean for the health of the American family?  It certainly is not evil that women are attaining higher levels of education, better paying jobs and making 85% of all buying decisions.  The challenge is the effect all this has on men.  God has designed the role relationships between men and women rather clearly.  As men fail in their roles, women naturally pick up the slack.  Men today are more confused and more disoriented than ever.  Women are re-defining their roles as a result.  The often negative impact of all this change on the family is another natural result.  In the long run, it is difficult to see all of this as a positive set of developments.

See Belinda Luscombe in Time (22 November 2010); Cheryl Wetzstein in the Washington Times (25 May 2011); and Sabrina Tavernise in the New York Times (26 May 2011). PRINT PDF

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