Marriage: a cornerstone, not a luxury good — Sutherland Soapbox, 12/16/14

Holding_HandsThis post is a transcript of a 4-minute weekly radio commentary aired on several Utah radio stations. The podcast can be found at the bottom of this post.

Prominent sociologist Andrew Cherlin had an interesting piece in the New York Times this weekend about the much-observed correlation between social class and marriage rates (professionals tend to marry at higher rates). Dr. Cherlin identifies a correlation between income inequality and marriage over the years to show that both cultural factors and economic factors are at work. He points to the end of “social norms against cohabitation and childbearing outside of marriage.”

A passing comment in the article points to another cultural change in our current understanding of marriage: the erosion of the idea that marriage is a foundational aspect of adulthood. The article notes, “we see high levels of marriage among young professionals today, although they may delay weddings until they have started a career.”

A recent study confirmed: “Marriage has shifted from being the cornerstone to being the capstone of adult life.” The median age of first marriages has risen from 23 for men and 20 for women in 1970 to nearly 29 for men and nearly 27 for women in 2011. The Knot Yet study explains that this allows for completion of college education and may have decreased the divorce rate (though the risks of early marriage are only more significant with very early marriages and “[m]arriages that begin at age 20, 21 or 22 are not nearly so likely to end in divorce as many presume.”). But this trend is associated with higher rates of out-of-wedlock births, the substitution of cohabitation for marriage and may be associated with greater unhappiness and other challenges.

These trends came to mind in listening to Dr. Lloyd Newell’s wonderful address at BYU last week. He talked about the straitened financial circumstances of President Gordon B. Hinckley and his wife, Marjorie Pay Hinckley, when they engaged in the midst of the Depression. Here is the story from another source:

While ordering lunch Gordon warned his bride-to-be, “I think you should know that I only have $150 to my name.” Marjorie’s response was not what Gordon had expected: “Oh, that will work out just fine; if you’ve got $150, we’re set!” Reflecting on her thoughts that day, Marjorie said, “Well, $150 sounded like a small fortune to me. I had hoped for a husband and now I was getting $150 too!”

Obviously, some people still see marriage as the cornerstone of adult life. As many of our progenitors knew, it works out fine.

The alternative is not all rosy. As professor Karen Swallow Prior points out: “Prolonged singledom has become a rolling stone, gathering up debt and offspring that, we can imagine, will manifest themselves in years to come in more broken, or never-realized, marriages.”

The view of marriage as the foundation of adult life seems to be slipping, and marriage is now seen by many to be an acquisition marking the end of the path to adulthood — once everything is in order in terms of finances and education, attention can then turn to marriage. With this understanding in the ascendancy, marriage can begin to look like a luxury good — given the costs of some weddings, a very expensive luxury good. Thus, those whose financial circumstances are more tenuous may begin to believe that marriage is unattainable.

But, as Dr. Prior explains, a delayed marriage, for whatever reason, misses some of the primary benefits of marriage:

It’s important, of course, that people enter into marriage with some level of maturity and self-possession, for one’s own sake and that of the other person. But the greatest gift of marriage — even beyond financial security, children, or career success (because for some, these may never come) — is the formation that occurs through the give-and-take of living in lifelong communion with another.

For Sutherland Institute, I’m Dave Buer. Thanks for listening.

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