Ben Domenech’s recent New Ledger piece has set off no little conversation on one of my favorite topics: marriage. He writes (though the whole thing is worth a read):
For the most narcissistic among us, the problem is even reaching a point in life where marriage and reproduction are viewed in positive terms. As Kay Hymowitz has pointed out in a recent series of articles in The Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, “in 1970, 69 percent of 25-year-old and 85 percent of 30-year-old white men were married; in 2000, only 33 percent and 58 percent were, respectively.” This demographic shift has now pushed the median age of marriage for white males to nearly 28 — if they get married at all — further delaying fatherhood and motherhood.
Hymowitz offers several complex reasons why this is the case. But I say the simplest answer is true: American men today delay the act of reproduction and union because they devalue it. Because technology and culture (today, technologyis culture) unite to encourage them to devalue it — to favor distraction over maturity, personal growth over familial growth, and self over society.
Conor Friedersdorf, in response, writes:
In my experience, most of the folks who are delaying marriage and family do want those things eventually. So why wait? Let me air some alternative explanations. Birth control is one factor. By decreasing the cost of sex, it changes social mores and lessens the benefit of marrying earlier (as does the related decline in the taboo against premarital sex). The rise of career women — now dubbed “women” — is another major factor. Given choices and opportunities beyond being a married homemaker, it is no surprise that many women rationally decide to exercise preferences unavailable to their ancestors — preferences that require intense career focus during one’s early to mid-twenties if ambitions are to be fulfilled.
I’d also like to push back against Mr. Domenech’s culturally driven arguments, which seem to assume that delaying marriage and family imply devaluing those things. Maybe that’s happening, but I’d argue that the opposite is going on too. Young people in the middle and upper classes in America delay marriage partly out of a desire to avoid the rampant divorces that plagued their parents’ generation. The conventional wisdom that some folks “just married to young” leads to years long relationships wherein the participants are cautiously “making sure” that they are “ready to get married.” They may be right to do so!
While I find myself in general agreement with Domenech’s analysis, his response to Friedersdorf’s is accurate enough, but misses the heart of the issue. Friedersdorf is right in his assumption that young people delay marriage to avoid divorce, but wrong to think that this is because they value marriage–or, at least, that the word still carries with it the connotations and meaning it held for previous generations. Their desire to ‘make sure’ and to be ‘ready to get married’ suggest, if anything, that young people think the marriage bond rests upon the shifting ground of ‘personality’ and the unsteady foundation of the law. Such a view of marriage represents a departure from previous generations of Americans (though not, we could say, the Boomers).
It is not, then, ‘marriage’ that young people value but some sort of lifetime arrangement that exists strictly on the basis of the willing consent of both individuals, that can be dissolved at will. As Lawler points out in the comments at First Things, this is a Lockean foundation to be sure, but one that has been fused with the eroticism–though I hate to call it that–of the sixties sexual revolution and the freedom that comes with birth control.
And if you want the economic analysis for why this all matters, Spengler’s column in the Asia Times is a must read.