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Q. How can we explain the decline in marriage rates across industrial societies?
In this essay I will discuss three phenomena. Firstly, that marriage rates have, at most, only declined slightly, if we ignore the anomaly of the immediate postwar era. I will briefly look at some cultural and structural explanations for this persistence. Secondly, that if there is a story of decline, it is one of decline in marriage rates amongst blacks, especially black women. I will try to explain this decline. Finally I will seek to explain the more significant phenomenon, which is the delay in age at first marriage. Throughout I have treated marriage rates as synonymous with first marriage rates. My focus is on the USA.
The first question we have to answer is this: is marriage actually in decline? By this question it is normally meant: is the proportion of those who will ever marry in decline? It is hard to draw firm conclusions about the lifetime marriage probabilities of any age cohort until that cohort is so advanced in years that very few of its never-married members are likely to ever enter marriage. This means we cannot say with certainty whether marriage rates really are in decline.
However we have strong grounds to believe that marriage rates have, at most, only declined slightly, and that that drop off is from the exceptionally high rates of the immediate post-war era, and is really just a return to the marriage rate before that era. Most research finds that marriage is, in fact, being delayed, not forgone. Kenney and Goldstein (2001) forecast that, in the US, around 90% of women born in the 1950s and 1960s have married or will eventually marry. This is, admittedly, a slight decline from the 95% of 'baby-boomers' who married, but it is line with cohorts born at the start of the twentieth century. As it happens, among US women born in 1960, 87% had ever married by age 50. Schoen and Standish (2001) actually find evidence of a very slight increase in marriage rates. Elliott et al (2012) find that, in the US, the proportion of never-married women age 45 and older was 8%, and 10% for men. That is a lower proportion of never-married than in 1940 (9% and 11% respectively).
The question that we might ask, then, is why has marriage persisted as a near universal institution? After all, Pew (2010) finds that 39% of Americans saying that marriage is becoming obsolete, a response given by only 28% in 1978. There are both structural and cultural grounds for the persistence of marriage. Culturally, we see strong evidence of continued positive attitudes toward marriage, and expectations to marry (it seems, to be a little flippant, marriage is becoming obsolete for 'other people'). Manning et al (2007) find that only 5% of teens in
Lucas County, Ohio do not expect to marry in the future. Thornton and Young-DeMarco (2001)
report that 72% of high school seniors believe that a good marriage and family life is extremely important. Given that positive attitudes towards marriage are associated with higher marriage probabilities (Axinn & Thornton, 1992; Clarkberg, Stolzenberg, & Waite, 1995; Cunningham &
Thornton, 2004) we can see one reason why marriage has persisted, and is likely to continue to persist. The increasing normative acceptance of cohabitation, having children out of wedlock,
and other 'alternative' family forms, has, according to Cherlin (2004) not so much led to a decrease in marriage as a delay in marriage. It is now a 'capstone' - an affirmation of that which a couple has achieved - children, shared property, a stable relationship - rather than a declaration of that which they are about to achieve.
There are also structural reasons for the persistence of marriage. Firstly, there are continued legal advantages to marriage (Baizán et al 2004), such as superior arrangements for inheritance and other tax advantages. But there are broader reasons for the continued high rates of marriage. There are four main structural reasons sociologists give to explain marriage: 1) gains from specialisation; 2) credit and investment co-ordination; 3) sharing of collective (non-rival)
goods; 4) risk pooling. The obvious response is that all of these advantages can be gained by a cohabiting couple. But this is not true, or at least, not true to the same extent as it is for a married couple. Consider that there are higher costs to marriage dissolution than there are to dissolving a cohabiting union - economic costs and social disapproval. (We can infer the latter from Weston and Qu (2009) who finds a majority agreeing with the statement that 'marriage is a lifetime relationship and should never be ended'). The upshot is this: the higher costs of marital dissolution contribute to the greater durability of such unions.It is safer to specialise in a sense in a marriage than in a cohabitation, since if a relationship is easily dissolved, someone who has specialised in domestic production may find themselves in difficulties without the financial support of a partner who has specialised in the labour market (and vice versa). Again,
given the higher costs of dissolution, shared investments in one partner's human capital (such as further education) is safer for the partner not directly benefiting from the investment if the couple is married. The fourth reason, risk pooling, is also weaker for cohabitees. Quite simply,
given the costs to dissolution are lower, cohabitees can not be so confident their partner will remain with them through a period of unemployment or ill health. Only the third argument has equal force for cohabitees. This argument about relationship stability is admittedly only a theoretical one, lacking at the moment in empirical grounding. Unfortunately, whilst there is plenty of evidence of a correlation between marriage and relationship stability, I do not know of any evidence of a causational link, so we will have to rely on my point about the higher costs to marriage dissolution. However, it is also worth considering the fact that the mere perception of marriage dissolution being costlier itself makes marriage dissolution costlier, as it encourages the development of more complex financial and other ties between the partners.
I will now turn to the decline in marriage amongst black women. Undoubtedly, there is a story to be told about the related decline in marriage amongst black men, but for reasons of brevity and because it is amongst black women that the decline has been most pronounced, I treat them as the explicandum. Isey and Stevenson (2010) provide figures from the US census for proportions of the population never-married, by sex and race, between 1890 and 2010. By 2010, white men were still more likely to have married by age 45 than they were between 1910 and 1940. White women, by age 45, were more likely to have been married than they were at any point between 1900 and 1970. For both white men and white women, there was a brief period of exceptionally high marriage rates, with those married by age 45 at the highest level in the late 20th century. For whites then, I think it is misleading to talk of marriage decline. The story for blacks is very different. Between (at the latest) 1890 and about 1970, the proportion of black women never married by age 45 was below 6%, and for black men below 9%. After 1970, there were consistent rapid increases in the never-married share of both black men and women, such that by the 2010 census both groups had a never-married at age 45 rate of about 20%, more than twice the rate of white men, and about three times the rate of white women. It is this specific decline then, which merits attention.
Firstly, we encounter a puzzle: American blacks are more likely to possess many of the cultural characteristics associated with likelihood to marriage, such as religiosity (Chatters et al 2009).
Therefore the better explanations for the decline in marriage rates may be structural. The most common structural arguments start with the disadvantaged position of blacks. (Some go on to note that the disadvantaged position of black men is a particular problem, as it limits the pool of eligible men for black women, given women's tendency to marry someone of equal or better status.) The classic statement of this argument is made by Wilson and Neckerman (1987) who suggest blacks' low marriage rates in the 1970s and 1980s were due to a deficit of marriageable men, which was a result of phenomena such as the increased disparity in unemployment rates between blacks and whites. The problem with this set of arguments is that black marriage rates were in decline even as blacks' economic position, both absolute and relative to whites, was improving (between 1960 and 1980 employed black mens' earnings grew relative to those of white men). The second problem is that, as I have noted, in the pre ww2 era, when blacks were even more disadvantaged, their marriage rates were in fact higher than whites. So it is not that disadvantage amongst blacks has driven the declining marriage rate, but it may be that marriage itself has become increasingly associated with advantaged social positions. Changes to marriage, not changes to blacks' positions, account for the decline in black marriage rates.
Marriage has become increasingly associated with the highly educated (Goldstein and Kenney 2001) whereas, for cohorts born before the 1950s, the highly educated were less likely to ever marry). But this doesn't explain the entirety of the decline, since there is marriage rate disparity amongst blacks and whites with similar levels of education (and other indicators of advantaged social status). Among college-educated women in 2012, 71% of blacks had ever married,
compared to 88% of whites (this difference is not fully accounted for by black female college
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