In a recent New York Times oped, Stephanie Coontz cites a plethora of sociologists in her discussion of the tug-of-war between gender equality and economic inequality over current marriage trends in America. In her piece, Coontz argues that families have become more egalitarian and stable due to increased gender equality, with women increasingly gaining equal access to education and employment. However, because of the recent recession and the increased income gap, the inequality between families continues to rise. Both forces, she argues, push and pull on the rates of marriage and divorce in American society. She writes:
Sometimes these trends counteract each other, with women’s work gains partly compensating for men’s losses in low-income families. Sometimes they reinforce each other, since the new trend for high-earning men to marry high-earning women increases the relative advantage of such couples over low-income or single-earner families. For all Americans, these trends have changed the rewards, risks, and rules of marriage.
Citing sociologists Christine Schwartz and Hongyun Han, she details how couples who share housework and have equal levels of education are just as likely to stay together as those who subscribe to more traditional gender roles. Husbands have doubled the time they spend doing housework, and the percentage of Americans who believe in the “male-breadwinner” family arrangement has declined significantly. However, these increases in gender equality are counteracted by growing economic instability among families. She cites research by sociologist Philip N. Cohen, as well as a Susan Brown and I-Fen Lin, to show how, while the more educated are more likely to get married and stay married, the return on a college education continues to decrease, increasing income inequality and marriage instability. Coontz argues:
While the sexes have become more equal, society as a whole has become far less, producing especially deep losses for young men. In 1969, by the time men reached age 25, three-quarters were earning wages that could support a family of four above the poverty line. By 2004, it took until age 30 for the same percentage of men to reach this income level. And while in 1969 only 10 percent of men ages 30-35 were still low earners, by 2004 almost a quarter of men in that age range remained low earners.
Coontz then turns to sociologist Andrew Cherlin’s book Labor’s Love Lost to discuss the implications of these findings. Cherlin’s book details how two important factors have lead to a decrease in marriage rates among younger generations. First, the decrease in blue-collar work that requires only a high school diploma has significantly affected the ability of lower-income males to fulfill the historical role of bread-winner. Second, the increase in gender equality detailed above has made it so females no longer need a breadwinner in the first place, allowing them to wait for a mate with a stable income or to make that income themselves. Coontz summarizes Cherlin:
Women’s expectation of fairness and reciprocity in marriage has been rising even as men’s ability to compensate for deficits in their behavior by being “good providers” has been falling. Low-income women consistently tell researchers that the main reason they hesitate to marry – even if they are in love, even if they have moved in with a man to share expense, and even if they have a child – is that they see a bad marriage or divorce as a greater threat to their well-being than being single.
However, our very own Doug Hartmann qualifies findings that indicate a decline in marriage rates in an interview with CBS Minnesota, saying that even though younger cohorts, especially women, are waiting to pay off their student loans and build their careers before marriage, the desire to get married has not declined. Hartmann says, “When you ask people about their attitudes about marriage, their desires to get married, that doesn’t seem to be in decline. It’s just the timing of it and when it’s happening is getting put off.”
Sociologists across the country are invested in understanding the changing trends in marriage and American family life, and their research has detailed important factors contributing to these trends. Coontz ends her article with an important insight, urging us to consider the stability and equality of the marriage landscape Americans are so often nostalgic for.
If women lowered their expectations to match men’s lower economic prospects, perhaps marriage would be more common in low-income communities. But it would most likely be even less stable, and certainly less fair. Turning back the inequality revolution may be difficult. But that would certainly help more families – at almost all income levels – than turning back the gender revolution.
See more of Coontz, Cohen, and other sociologists of family life, including Coontz’s piece on how religious affiliation affects marriage rates, at the Council of Contemporary Families’ blog Families As They Really Are.