It’s no secret that marriage has been in decline in America, but most people don’t realize how quickly it has been crumbling. The numbers are staggering and the sea change in attitude that has gone along with them would shock previous generations of Americans.
“In 1960, two-thirds (68%) of all twenty-somethings were married. In 2008, just 26% were.” “To get a sense of how different attitudes were in the 1960s, perhaps this will do it. (M)arried women were asked, “In your opinion, do you think it is all right for a woman to have sexual relations before marriage with a man she knows she is going to marry?” …Eighty-six percent said no.“
The damage to our society caused by this decline in marriage is almost incalculable.
According to the Index of Leading Cultural Indicators, children from single-parent families account for 63 percent of all youth suicides, 70 percent of all teenage pregnancies, 71 percent of all adolescent chemical/substance abuse, 80 percent of all prison inmates, and 90 percent of all homeless and runaway children.
A study cited in the Village Voice produced similar numbers. It found that children brought up in single-mother homes “are five times more likely to commit suicide, nine times more likely to drop out of high school, 10 times more likely to abuse chemical substances, 14 times more likely to commit rape (for the boys), 20 times more likely to end up in prison, and 32 times more likely to run away from home.”
There are no easy fixes for this problem, but before we can even begin to consider solutions, we need to get a better understanding of what has gone wrong. Why is marriage collapsing in America? What are the root causes of the phenomenon? While studies show that married couples are happier, more financially secure and generally better off across just about every variable you can imagine, there have been some very real issues that have cropped up over the last few decades that have lowered the value of marriage in the eyes of many Americans.
1) The Sexual Revolution: There have always been people who’ve had sex outside of marriage, but there was a time when that was widely considered shameful. Fifty years ago, a book like The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding Fulfillment While Keeping Your Clothes On would have been considered nothing more than obvious common sense. Today, if you write a book like that, you’ll end up on TV facing hosts who can’t believe there’s anyone left who believes in not having sex before marriage. In other words, the promise of easy access to sex used to be a big reason to get married. These days? Fifty nine percent of people polled at MSN Dating said they would have sex within the first three dates and less than 7% said they would wait until marriage.
2) The Inability Of Many Poor Men To Support A Family: There was a time in America where a hard working man with a high school degree and limited skills could still make enough money to support himself, a wife and a child or two. Granted, they might have had to scrape by, but they were able to make it. Unfortunately, as automation and technology have replaced some of those jobs and others have moved overseas to workers in China and India, the economic prospects for many men in this group have plunged. What that means as a practical matter is that a lot of men who would have been married and providing for a family in a previous era are now single and can barely afford to take care of themselves.
3) A “Marrying Up” Gap: Women have always been inclined to “marry up.” In a world where female incomes have dramatically increased and there have been more women than men getting college degrees for the last twenty years, that means many ladies believe they have a much smaller pool of potentially acceptable mates than ever before. The male CEO may be content to marry the pretty maid who wants to take care of him, but a female CEO probably isn’t going to marry a butler.
4) No Fault Divorce: When Ronald Reagan was governor of California, he signed the nation’s first “no fault” divorce bill into law. Later on, Reagan called that act his “greatest regret.” It should have been because it led to those laws, which made divorce much easier to get, spreading across the country. As a result, between 1960 and 1980, the divorce rate in America more than doubled. Happily, the numbers have since stabilized, but they ended up almost twice as high as they were before. The more divorces there are, the less attractive marriage becomes because it increases the risk factor. “No fault” or not, divorce is usually a devastating process for everyone involved and the more likely marriages are to end in divorce, the less likely people will be to want to get married in the first place.
5) Increased Economic Options For Women: There was a time when the surest path to economic security for women was to get married. Today, that’s not necessarily true. Women on the low end of the pay scale can have the government step in to pay many of their bills. Women with college degrees or in demand skills can make just as much as a man if they’re willing to put in the same hours. Those additional economic options make marriage — and staying in a difficult marriage — less attractive to women.
6) Marriage has become a much less attractive option for men: There was a time when the man was expected to provide for his wife and kids and in return, he was treated as the king of the castle. Now, men are often treated more like partners than kings. Moreover, if there’s a divorce, men know they may not be treated fairly by the court system. Almost every man knows a guy who has had access to his child used as a bargaining chip, who has to pay Draconian child support payments or who has otherwise been generally treated unfairly because of his gender, not the merits. No man wants to end up as the guy paying a huge chunk of his income to a woman who broke his heart while he wonders if he’ll be allowed to have access to his own child.
7) Children have become more of an economic hindrance than a help: There was a time when having children was essentially an insurance policy. If you became disabled or too old to work, your kids took care of you. Today, the government fulfills that role. Additionally, the cost of raising a child has skyrocketed. You’ll now have to take $235,000 out of your wallet to raise a kid to 17 — and that doesn’t even include college costs. While a married couple can bear this expense much more easily than a single parent, as a practical matter what it means is that less Americans are having children in the first place. If you take away the need to have a partner in raising a child, you’ve removed one of the biggest reasons for marriage to exist in the first place.