Will the institution of marriage endure? The question is ideologically charged and misleading, prompted by oft-cited societal shifts: “dramatically” changing family structures, “declining marriage rates, the growth of cohabitation, and increasing numbers of young Americans purposefully foregoing marriage,” all trends that were scrutinized Wednesday night, when the Independent Women’s Forum hosted a panel in Washington, D.C. called “I Do… or I Don’t: The Future of Marriage.”
Fortunately, panelists Isabel Sawhill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, Kay Hymowitz, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and W. Bradford Wilcox, the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia offered no evidence that marriage is dead. Instead, they spent a significant portion of the evening clearing up misperceptions surrounding marriage statistics, and discussing why the issue matters more urgently for children than for the mostly college-educated adults in attendance.
In truth, the forum made clear, marriage is not quite “in decline” the way it once was. As the New York Times demonstrated in a December 2014 infographic, divorce rates have actually dropped in the last 20 years. At its peak in the ’70s and ’80s, the divorce rate was predicted to be around 50 percent — now a much-refuted statistic. Looking at the percentage of marriages that reach their 15th anniversary is helpful for sociologists because it allows a comparison between marriages that started in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s. In fact, 65 percent of marriages started in the ’70s and ’80s reached their 15th anniversary, while 70 percent of couples married in the ’90s celebrated their 15th anniversaries. Couples married in the 2000s have followed this upward trend, leading researchers to predict that as many as two-thirds of marriages will never end in divorce. Those who study marriage trends suspect that later marriages have something to do with this; as Isabel Sawhill explained to me, if you get married later and do more dating before that, you’ll have a better idea, when you do get married, of what you want from your partner and from your marriage, and whether you’re with the right person for those expectations.
But it isn’t just staying together that’s trending differently – getting married in the first place is no longer in rapid decline, either. In a report by Wilcox published on Thursday for Family Studies, he writes, “the marriage rate has not declined in recent years.” The report, it’s worth noting, is called “Not Dead Yet? Marriage in Twenty-First-Century America.” In an email to Women in the World, Wilcox clarified that “the retreat from marriage seems to be slowing … but the retreat from marriage is not reversing course.” So rates of wedlock may be in a holding pattern, but the marriage crisis appears to have been exaggerated.
Alarming headlines about a matrimonial recession are particularly irrelevant for college educated Americans, who, the panelists each told me, seem to be more or less buffered from the trend. Yes, more women than men are getting bachelor’s degrees, and yes, some of those women may not want to “marry down” educationally, as Sawhill put it. Taken together, these phenomena could hypothetically leave some highly educated women without partners, but it is problematic to assign a cause-and-effect model to that situation. Even assuming that women do still seek to marry “up” or evenly educationally, not every college-educated woman wants to get married to a man — or get married at all, for that matter. And at any rate, the insistence that a man should be at least as well educated as his spouse is surely unsustainable in an era when so many women outperform men academically and go on to earn more money than their husbands do.
But the decline of marriage is very real for another segment of American society: the two-thirds of the population who are not college educated. Single women living in poverty without a higher degree are particularly susceptible to ending up as single mothers, because despite fertility declining across all classes, fewer and fewer of these women are getting married. In an Op-Ed for The New York Times, Sawhill wrote that “more than 40 percent of new mothers are unmarried.” Of unmarried couples cohabiting at the time of their child’s birth, she wrote, roughly half “will have split up by the time their child is 5 years old.” Young adults,” she summarized, often “drift into parenthood unintentionally.” Accompanying the New York Times Op-Ed was a shocking infographic that demonstrated the probabilities of failure for various methods of birth control over 10 years.
The marital unions sometimes formed to accommodate these unplanned pregnancies are more likely to end in divorce, leaving children to bear the consequences. Children in two-parent homes enjoy higher economic standing, are more likely to have at least one stable adult in their lives and, especially in the case of boys, tend to fare better behaviorally and academically.
Providing for these children is where the debate about marriage comes back into sharp focus. While Hymowitz suggested that the wellbeing of children likely factored into the evolution of marriage in human history, and Wilcox and his colleagues may advocate for a return to marriage as a possible solution to the growing number of single mothers, Sawhill argued that better birth control education and access to longer-lasting contraceptives, like IUDs, could lower the number of women having children out of wedlock. These measures, along with access to emergency contraception and abortion, would obviously give women more control over when they have children and get married, and a better chance at higher education.
For many in the audience, the stakes in this debate were muddled. Two young women questioned Kay Hymowtiz about the fallacy that an educational imbalance between sexes would affect their marriage prospects (which she politely cleared up). Instead of asking what the “decline of marriage” means for the mostly professional men and women across the age spectrum who made up the audience, and for whom marriage certainly does seem to have a future, we should continue investigating the causes and challenges of single parenthood, and provide support and resources children.