The Times has a piece this morning entitled "Why Are There So Many Single Americans?" in which we learn that a bare majority (51%) of adult women are not living with a spouse, and nearly as many (49%) men are not. The fact that women live longer, and thus typically live as widows for several years is one factor. But the main factors appear to be class and its surrogate, education. It used to be that educated women were considered unmarriageable. (Remember that canard?) Not so. It turns out that educated men do want someone with whom they can talk intelligently after all (or at least, someone intelligent to raise the children).
Statistics show that college educated women are more likely to marry than non-college educated women — although they marry, on average, two years later. The popular image might have been true even 20 years ago — though generally speaking, most women probably didn’t boil the bunny rabbit the way Ms. Close’s character [in "Fatal Attraction"] did in 1987. In the past, less educated women often “married up.” In “Working Girl,” Melanie Griffith triumphs. Now, marriage has become more one of equals; when more highly educated men marry, it tends to be more highly educated women.
Educated women also seem not only more likely to evntually marry, but to stay married. Why does this "marriage gap" between the classes rise with age?
Why have things changed so much for women who don’t have the choices that educated women have? While marriage used to be something you did before launching a life or career, now it is seen as something you do after you’re financially stable — when you can buy a house, say. The same is true for all classes. But the less educated may not get there.
“Women are saying, ‘I’m not ready, I want to work for a while, the guys I hang around with don’t make enough money and they don’t want a commitment,’ ” Mr. Jencks said. “It’s the same thing a lot of African-American women in poor neighborhoods are saying."
The marriage gap between the classes is not so great among younger men. Both educated and uneducated young men are typically averse to commitment, the author states. But after 35, the percentage of married, educated men is 12 percentage points higher than the percentage of married but uneducated men.
Why should we care? Among other reasons, because marriage attaches a person to society as a whole, and unattached males are much more likely to engage in anti-social behavior than women or attached men. Marriage, by contrast, makes people happier (on average) and more stable. (It has reportedly even been used to defuse terrorists.) By making marriage difficult for less educated (read, lower class) people, we are creating yet another source of social instability. (Interestingly, this is also the best policy argument for gay marriage--if marriage is good (on balance) for individuals and society, why deny its benefits to a whole class of people? Doesn't this actually hurt society as well as the individuals involved?)
The decline of marriage among the less educated creates philosophical dilemmas for both liberals and conservatives. The difficulties in entering into and remaining in a marriage are psychological and cultural as well as economic, but economics surely plays a major role. For conservatives who see marriage as the core social institution, supporting economic policies that provide a safety net and are more family-friendly brings them into direct conflict with pro-business free marketeers.
But the studies that document the stabilizing effects of marriage on adults as well as children may give pause to liberals as well. Witness the turnaroud on divorce among educated women, 65% of whom now think divorce should be made more difficult. And it also exposes the lie at the core of libertarianism--we are not islands, but social beings who need connection and thrive in communities.