There have been a lot of obits for traditional marriage. The latest one appears in the November issue of the Atlantic Monthly magazine.
As it happens, the two authors trace their two phenomena to similar roots: a combination of increased economic opportunities for women, coupled with diminished prospects for men, including joblessness. The tease for Bolick's article is a good summary of her thesis:
Recent years have seen an explosion of male joblessness and a steep decline in men’s life prospects that have disrupted the “romantic market” in ways that narrow a marriage-minded woman’s options: increasingly, her choice is between deadbeats (whose numbers are rising) and playboys (whose power is growing). But this strange state of affairs also presents an opportunity: as the economy evolves, it’s time to embrace new ideas about romance and family—and to acknowledge the end of “traditional” marriage as society’s highest ideal.
It is interesting to me that neither Rosin nor Bolick expressed regret for the putative decline of manhood. But it shouldn't have come as a surprise because the more radical elements of the feminist movement have been denigrating masculinity for several generations now.
Although Bolick delves into history, going all the way back to the hunter gatherers (you may be surprised to know how promiscuous these rapscallions were!), the high point for me was her visit to the Begijnhof, a Dutch community composed entirely of women:
We drank tea and talked, and Ellen rolled her own cigarettes and smoked thoughtfully. She talked about how the Dutch don’t regard being single as peculiar in any way—people are as they are. She feels blessed to live at the Begijnhof and doesn’t ever want to leave….
When an American woman gives you a tour of her house, she leads you through all the rooms. Instead, this expat showed me her favorite window views: from her desk, from her (single) bed, from her reading chair. As I perched for a moment in each spot, trying her life on for size, I thought about the years I’d spent struggling against the four walls of my apartment, and I wondered what my mother’s life would have been like had she lived and divorced my father. A room of one’s own, for each of us. A place where single women can live and thrive as themselves.
Well, I don’t know about you, but to me this sounds a giddy girl who has read one too many of the great feminist classics.
I don't have the data at hand to correct what seems to me a very premature report on the death of marriage, but the Manhattan Institute's Kay Hymowitz does:
Like most marriage-is-dead arguments, Bolick’s hinges on two statistics badly in need of deconstruction. One is that only 48% of American households are headed by a married couple compared to 78% in 1950. That’s a striking decline but it has little to do with any loss of interest in the institution.
Most of the unmarried households are made up of young immigrant men, elderly women who, thanks to modern medicine, are out living their husbands for many years, and young singles who are marrying at historically late ages.
In reality, a little more than 80 percent of women and men marry at some point. This represents a decline from the 90 percent of marrieds in 1950, but it is similar to many other periods of American history.
The second statistic that is used to prove the end of marriage is the over 40% of American children born to unmarried mothers. This is also a number that hides as much as it reveals.
The vast majority of women who have children outside of marriage are low income and working class women. No doubt the “stigma against single motherhood” has eased, yet college educated women like Bolick continue to do what their mothers and grandmothers did; they tie the knot before having children. The latest Census shows that percentage of college educated women who have children outside of marriage is only about 6%. That’s an increase from previous years, but a very small one.
In other words, women like Bolick are the most likely to marry, to have children within marriage, and, to stay married. (The divorce rate for this demographic has gone down since its 1980 peak.) This could change; in fact it seems likely to do so. …
The answer to the question of why women who can afford to raise children on their own but decide not to, reveals the limitation of arguments like Bolicks; focused on the economics of marriage, they ignore the institution’s deep connection to childbearing.
Educated women are still the marrying kind because they know intuitively what research concludes: children are more likely to succeed in school, go to college, and get good jobs if they grow up with their two married parents. Prepping your kids for a competitive knowledge economy is a time-consuming, devotional task; no wonder it works better with a steady, focused twosome.
“Alternative family arrangements” that can do that job anywhere near as well? Good luck.