New research shows that women are getting married at later ages – and that the divorce rate is going down. The results reflect some good news — later marriages are more likely to last. Most importantly, however, these figures correlate with widespread changes in the American family.
First, the decrease in the divorce rate does at least in part reflect later marriages. Teen marriages have always been risky and most studies suggest that the increase in maturity from the teen years to the early twenties bodes well for the stability of relationships. Delay from the early twenties to the late twenties and thirties, however, is more controversial. While these later marriages are also more likely to last, economist Stephane Mechoulan found that the increase in the age of marriage in itself accounts for only a small part of the falling divorce rates. Instead, they reflect the increasing tendency of the well-off to marry similarly well-off partners and those marriages are more likely to last at any age.
Second, the overall statistics hide the class-based dynamics at the core of the shift. Historically, college educated women were less likely to marry than high school graduates. Today, male and female college graduates have become substantially more likely to marry (and stay married). At the same time, marriage has effectively disappeared from the poorest communities. In the middle, pregnant teens like Bristol Palin have become much less likely to marry the fathers of their children. It is hardly surprising therefore that overall divorce rates have fallen as the highest divorce risks (pregnant teens among them) have become much less likely to marry.
Third, the later age of marriage for college graduates does suggest a new middle class strategy: invest in women’s education and earning capacity as well as men’s, push back the age of marriage and childbearing from the low ages of the anomalous fifties, and reap the benefits of two incomes. This strategy, of course, began in the sixties and seventies and produced much more independent women. Today, it also reflects a new marriage strategy. The only portion of the American population substantially better off than a generation ago are high income men, and it easier to tell who will be successful (think of those Wall St. bonuses) and who will not at thirty than at twenty. At the same time, for less spectacularly successful men, two substantial incomes are essential for middle class life. Today, becoming established means not only college graduation and graduate school, but the right internships, entry level jobs, and often repeated moves between positions, cities and sometimes career paths. These investments pay off in terms of a stable investment for family life, but they are rarely in place before the thirties and earlier marriage and childbearing often makes them harder to establish. As the economy becomes more perilous, the risks of early marriage increase.
Fourth, with the disappearance of relatively stable and high paying manufacturing jobs, working class women may have greater opportunities than working class men and they have also become pickier about marriage as a result. Women have become more likely to graduate from high school and college and the jobs they choose — teaching, health care, retail sales, administration — tend to be more stable than those available to men. Construction workers, for example, often earn more than Walmart employees, but they are also more likely to be laid off. Studies further show that while unemployed women spend more time on the home and the children, unemployed men spend more time moping, drinking, watching TV, and lashing out at those around them. The new data confirms that the Great Recession has slowed marriage rates and earlier studies show that financial stress greatly increases the divorce rates of young and working class couples with the most traditional attitudes toward gender roles. In today’s economy, these couples have become less likely to marry.
Fifth, a delay in marriage and a decrease in divorce might be a good thing, but only if it also produces a drop in non-marital births. For the middle class, later marriage continues to mean later childbearing, and later childrearing tends to lower overall fertility. Women’s workforce participation increases the opportunity cost (and the family tensions) of having more children. The combination of the suburbs, with their dependence on the automobile, and the disappearance of stay-at-home moms dismantled the community networks that had supervised children, placing more emphasis on the role of individual parents. Modern studies of family time indicate that while mothers today spend substantially less time on housework than they did a half century ago, they spend as much time with their children and their husband spend more. Today’s “helicopter” parents invest enormous amounts of time overseeing homework, coaching sports teams, escorting their children to after school activities, and addressing their emotional needs.
Working class women, however, have become more likely to have children without marrying. If the father is chronically unemployed, uncommitted to the relationship, immature or simply unreliable, young mothers may decide that they are better off on their own. It is hard to assess the impact of falling marriage rates therefor without examining the nature of childbearing. The changes of the last quarter century indicate that marriage is increasingly becoming a marker of class — the delayed marriages of the middle class produce steadily lower divorce rates, very few non-marital births, and substantial resources to invest in a falling number of children. For the rest of the country, the statistics may simply confirm a greater move away from marriage altogether.
June Carbone is the Edward A. Smith/Missouri Chair of Law, the Constitution and Society at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
Naomi Cahn is the John Theodore Fey Research Professor of Law at George Washington University Law School. She is the author of numerous books and law review articles on gender and family law.
Cahn and Carbone are the co-authors of Red Families v. Blue Families.