Every so often, the media dusts off and replays some version of the story that marriage is dead, a casualty of women’s empowerment and dramatic economic shifts. These stories generally shed as much light on the nation’s media class as they do on the real story of America’s family troubles. There’s no better example than Kate Bolick’s much-discussed Atlantic magazine cover story, “All the Single Ladies.”
Like a vocal number of her high achieving peers, the 39-year-old Bolick remains single not because she is cursed by nature– we know that because in an unusual and, I dare say, cynical decision, the magazine put Bolick’s sultry face and lace bodiced figure on its cover -- but because of a taste for independence and a lack of acceptable candidates for her hand.
Bolick sets out to understand her predicament in broader historical and cultural context. “For thousands of years, marriage had been a primarily economic and political contract between two people,” she writes. Now, people want what British sociologist Anthony Giddens termed “pure relationship.” More importantly, women have the economic independence to opt out of the whole thing if they can’t get what they want. So, yes, marriage is obsolete and we need to find “alternative family arrangements”.
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.
Bolick rightfully observes that with women making up 57% of college grads, some of them faced with the prospect of marrying down may well choose not to marry at all.
But that still leaves us with the question as to why at this point women who can actually afford to raise children on their own almost always avoid doing so, while the women who have almost nothing in the bank are going it alone.
In the not so distant past, college educated women were often destined for spinsterhood; today they are more likely to marry. That’s the opposite of what one might expect.
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.
Kay S. Hymowitz is the William E. Simon fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a City Journal contributing editor. She is the author of "Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men Into Boys."