Marriage and Children in Our New America

by Benjamin Domenech on 11:57 pm July 16, 2009

And too much world at once--could means be found.

Conor Friedersdorf, subbing for Andrew Sullivan, shares his ideas on my Once Was America essay with a post at The Daily Dish today which I think is worth a response. My chief concern in my original essay is that we have failed to recognize a technology-and-culture driven fluctuation in fertility, union, and mortality that may hold widespread ramifications for the nature of our country, representing a permanent and fundamental shift from the past. Within the current generation, the value assigned to marriage and family have decreased dramatically, resulting in a delay in the median age of marriage, a marked decline in reproduction rates, and an associated loss of some of the admirable qualities that enabled Americans to contend with the great trials and challenges of the 20th Century.

As I pointed out in response to Peter Lawler and James Poulos, from 1950-1970, the average man got married by age 23, and the average woman when she was 20; from 1979-1994, the echo boom had 60 million children, the second largest generation in American history. For all the negative things that can be said about the Baby Boomers, they got married young and therefore reproduced at high rates — Echo Boomers so far have not, and I believe that they will not. I believe this represents a fundamental shift in what Americans value — that children and family have diminished as other things have risen to take their place.

Conor disagrees, but I believe he is disagreeing out of impressions formed, as he writes, “In my experience.” I’d suggest Conor consider that the experiences he and his friends have gone through in recent years, while fascinating in their own way, are not a broad enough sample group to evaluate how children and marriage are viewed in 21st Century American life (were I to rely only on my own experiences, one would assume the American family is thriving and reproducing at an astounding rate) — and in some cases, I believe Conor is mistaking chicken for egg.

Conor writes: “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.” In other words, they just want to wait to make sure their families work, since the marriages of their parents did not. While this might make rational sense, I don’t believe most young people view their relationships in terms that are equivalent to social science, and I simply don’t see the data to support this perception. Marriage gets delayed for a lot of different reasons: men can have more fun (see the classic 2002 documentary Buying the Cow), women can somewhat fulfill feminist career demands, everyone can delay the responsibility of babies and growing up (as Kay Hymowitz has written) — but a sober reflection on the endurance of late marriages is not among them. I see no reason to doubt Robert Bitter’s 1986 study on this point, nor Sandra McGinnis’s work with the NCFR on cohabitation. Absent statistical proof to the contrary, I believe fear of divorce is just not a statistically significant reason for delaying marriage — especially as divorce’s occurrence has plateaued — and certainly not significant enough to result in the kind of dramatic shift we’ve seen since the 1970s.

To demonstrate the nature of this shift, I’d recommend the work of Robert Schoen of Penn State, whose statistical studies bear reconsideration. In 2005, in the course of a study co-written with Vladimir Canudas-Romo, Schoen demonstrated the overall trends tracking marriage and fertility rates based on relative ages: “Over the last several decades, the West has seen a dramatic retreat from marriage. There have been substantial increases in the mean age at first marriage, and recent period first-marriage rates imply large declines in the proportion of men and women who will ever marry. These changes have typically been accompanied by marked increases in cohabitation, very low fertility, and rises in the proportion of children born out of wedlock.”

In case you need a clearer picture: the top is England and Wales, the bottom the United States. Both trendlines have continued in the six years since these statistics end.

Marriage Rates Measured by Age

Conor writes that “The rise of career women — now dubbed ‘women’ — is another major factor.” He’s completely right that women in the workforce are a major factor in delayed marriage — and he’s completely wrong that we may now assume this is an unquestioned norm for American women. “Now dubbed ‘women'” can fairly be considered code for this assumption — which is a perfectly rational assumption, all the easier to reach if one knows precious few married women. As it happens, it is also wrong. The Department of Labor says so.

See item one: only 59.5% of eligible women are actual participants in the workforce. What are the other 40.5% doing? Whatever it is, they are failing to live up to the Friedersdorfian definition of “women.”

Extrapolating from this data (DOL doesn’t appear to have a male-specific statistical set), there are 82,838,710 eligible men in the workplace. We can get the 15-and-over male population of the U.S. through tedious addition of population pyramids here. It comes to 119,566,265 for mid-2009, which I’ll round down to 118,000,000 to exclude 15-year olds. So what’s the eligible-male participation in the workforce as a proportion of the total? About 69.3% — quite a lot higher than the 59.5% of women. Why the difference? And why do we see women vastly overrepresented as “Secretaries and administrative assistants” (the plurality top category in the DOL stats), and vastly underrepresented as senior management?

The answer to both questions: children! There’s actually been a great deal written about this at conservative institutions like the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, and The Atlantic. (Note to archival Atlanticists: please, fix the spelling of George Gilder’s name).

Note that the ideological arguments in these essays (especially in the CSM piece) that “economics,” not children, drive women’s decisions to leave the workforce are all still child-centric, and merely cast the demands of child-raising in economic terms (mostly as failures of governments and employers to provide appropriately economic remedies, like the Village it Takes.) Also note that while it’s true that the upper and middle class in America have longer educational periods, and that this is one (though I would argue a very small) reason for the heightened delay in marriage, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics study quoted by the NYT shows declines of mothers in the workforce “have occurred across all educational levels and, for most groups, by about the same magnitude.”

As Conor notes, I certainly agree that if an upper or middle-class individual chooses to stay in college longer and enter the workforce later, it has an effect on marriage ages. It’s a generalization, but an accurate one I think, to contend that if you enter the workforce at a younger age, you may view yourself as an adult earlier, and one of the things that comes with adulthood is a tendency to value marriage (see the Kay Hymowitz series I referenced in my first piece). But only 29% of Americans have a college degree, a figure that is not expected to increase dramatically in the coming years — so what’s Conor’s explanation for the decisions of the other 71%? I don’t know how many of Conor’s friends are in this category, but before he responds that concerns about the economy are the largest motivation, it’s worth noting that the data we’re working from is all from before the current economic downturn began. Even in prosperous years, Americans are choosing to invest their money in personal enjoyment over family and children. This suggests that there is more going on here than the ramifications of class and career — it implies a fundamental underlying social cause.

Conor claims that he wishes to “push back against Mr. Domenech’s culturally driven arguments, which seem to assume that delaying marriage and family imply devaluing those things.” When people get married and have children, they transform from being a potential society to being real societies, creating a cycle of productivity and inheritance that allows individuals to succeed and surpass their parents, and forming a community of stability and support that dramatically reduces the demand for larger government to provide for the health and economic needs of the young (as poverty is feminized), the infirm (as caregivers disappear), and the aging. Increases in the number of unwed and childless individuals necessitates demand for expanded social programs and governmental authority to take the place of family. As a putative conservative, it surprises me somewhat that Conor would take issue with a position as paramount to conservatism in all its forms as the importance of culture, and the family as a crucial element of American culture. Or perhaps that is just the price of admission if one wishes to be published in The Daily Dish?

In any case, while I don’t concur with the entirety of his findings, the University of Michigan’s Ron Lesthaeghe’s belief that the United States is in the midst of a Second Demographic Transition is overwhelmingly borne out by what we know to be true. If one looks at the data, and not the anecdote, it is clear that women and families actually behave as if there is an either/or choice. This, in turn, leads a reasonable person to believe there is a valuation process underway. Conor may believe that this is not the case, but if he does so, he is deriving the substance of his ideas from something other than measurable facts.

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