A Corvette. A home in the Hamptons. A Hermes handbag. Oh, and marriage. Because marriage, too, is fast becoming a luxury good.
Americans are falling out of love with marital bliss. Look at the data. As of 2010, only 51 percent of Americans 18 or older were married, compared with 72 percent in 1960. Exacerbated by a weak job market, the drop is starker still among the young. Today, just a fifth of Americans ages 18 to 29 have a spouse, down from roughly three-fifths in 1960. The number of marriages performed in the United States fell by 5 percent from 2009 to 2010, according to the Pew Research Center. That was partly the result of a sagging economy, but it also represents an acceleration of longer-term trends seen in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere in the developed world.
Americans aren’t starry-eyed anymore about marriage as an aspiration. Roughly four of every 10 Americans told the Pew center in 2010 that they thought matrimony was becoming obsolete. It’s certainly no longer a necessary station on the route to adulthood. Millions of educated young Americans now buy homes and sock away money for retirement, all without a wedding ring or even a significant other. Nor does child-rearing need the imprimatur of marriage: More than half the women under age 30 who give birth in the United States are single.
The traditional path of marriage, homeownership, and children—strictly in that order—is no longer regarded as de rigueur. This has left Americans more choices in how to live their lives—to cohabit instead of to marry, to have children with or without a partner, to remain single and live by themselves. One in four Americans are now going it alone, as described in the title of a new book by New York University sociologist Eric Klinenberg, Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone.
All of this has made marriage rarer, something that not everyone needs—or wants. Yet, paradoxically, it has become all the more important. At a time when two incomes are often necessary for a middle-class lifestyle, marriage can matter a lot. Years ago, most men, even those with only a high school degree, could settle down, buy a home, support a family, and lead some semblance of a middle-class life. Such economic security is gone for lower-income, less-educated, or working-class Americans, especially if they lack a college education. It’s tough for any single person, male or female, regardless of educational attainment, to be assured of supporting a family.
“If marriage goes well now, it can help people out economically,” said Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history and family studies at Evergreen State College. “But it’s also a riskier investment. Are you going to get saddled with a guy who can’t hold down a job?”
Even as fewer people marry overall, a demographic divergence has emerged. Increasingly, marriage is more common among college graduates than among Americans with less education. Roughly 69 percent of adults who finished college are married, according to Pew, compared with 56 percent of those without a college degree.
For educated women, the prospects for marriage have improved considerably. They now marry with greater frequency, while feeling less pressure to conform to a 1950s domestic ideal. In 1960, according to economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, 29 percent of college-educated women in their sixties had never married; now, only 8 percent of them stay single. Well-educated women tend to marry later than others do, but they stay married longer and report higher levels of marital satisfaction.
College grads may marry later than the rest of the population, yet more of them wind up settling down—and with one another. Increasingly, Americans are choosing spouses like themselves. In 1970, according to the Pew Center’s data, only 37 percent of married, college-educated men had a wife with a bachelor’s degree; by 2007, 71 percent of them did. A middle-class fellow with a typical salary and a 401(k) plan seeks out a woman with a similar economic profile. Same goes for the working-class or poorer couples. Gone are the days when the Harvard grad marries the girl with the high school degree simply because, well, she’s pretty.
Marriage, as a result, now offers fewer people a boost up the economic ladder. Stop and think what this means for the growing inequality in Americans’ incomes over the next decade or more. If well-educated people with good jobs marry one another, they’ll have a better shot at saving money and accumulating wealth. Less-educated, lower-income couples may stick together, but their lack of schooling means they’re both more likely to struggle to find work, and they’ll have sparser resources to fall back on if one of them loses a job.
Then consider the impact on the next generation. Well-educated, wealthy Americans will have more resources to spend on their children’s education, health, and enrichment; low-income people can offer fewer opportunities to help their offspring get ahead.
“The big losers within the marriage data are children who are increasingly raised with fewer resources,” said Michael Greenstone, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, which has published several studies on marriage. “If you want to get a little grandiose, it undermines the social fabric of the country that rests on the idea that everyone has an equal chance at success.”
The writer is a staff correspondent for National Journal.
This article appears in the March 13, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.