Marriage is going down. I’m sure of it. Never again will it have the place of prominence that it once had in our lives.
Predicting the future is perilous. In the mid-1950s, marriage and nuclear family in the United States were at their peak. People got married younger than they had ever married before, they almost always had kids, and they stayed married (divorce was rare). When pundits and scholars and prognosticators were asked about the future of marriage and family, they predicted more of the same. No one saw the upheavals that were coming. It would have been utterly inconceivable to them that the future held a huge surge in the number of people staying single and living alone, along with big decreases in having children. No one predicted those things.
So how can I be so sure that marriage is going down?
There are solid reasons to think that the current trends are going to slow or even reverse. Can the proportion of single people continue to grow with each new Census Report? Is it even possible that the age at which people first marry–of those who do marry–will continue to climb? What about those millennials–will they be taken by nostalgia and start marrying sooner and more often than the generation before them?
All of this demographic slowing, and even some demographic reversals, are possible. They could happen. But I stand by my prediction: Marriage is going down.
It is going down in the more fundamental sense than mere numbers. Regardless of the numbers of people who do or do not marry, or how young or old they are when they do so, marriage is never going to be what it once was.
For women, marriage used to be economic life support. When there were fewer jobs open to women, and when those jobs paid even less than they do now, many women had to marry if they did not want to live in poverty. When attitudes were different, people had to marry in order to have sex without shame or stigma. They also had to marry in order to raise children without shame or stigma (though surely, some single-parent shaming persists). Now, with the pill and other forms of birth control, women can have sex without having children. Because of advances in reproductive science, they can also have kids without having sex. And they can do all of that outside of marriage.
None of that is ever going to change.
During these decades when the number of people staying single has been growing, when divorce has become commonplace, and when the age of first marriages is increasing, the millions of people without spouses have been innovating. They have been finding ways of living that suit them. Maybe they are living alone–lots of people are living alone. Maybe they are sharing a place with friends, not just as roommates splitting the rent but as housemates sharing a life. Maybe they have found a way to live close to friends or family while still maintaining a home of their own (some even keep their own homes even if they do marry–that’s the “living apart together” or “dual-dwelling duos” phenomenon). Maybe they have created their own community, as has happened in more than 120 neighborhoods known as cohousing communities.
Some of these trends are very small. Added together, though, they are mighty. They are powerful enough to upend marriage and to topple to nuclear family.
What all of the choices and possibilities of contemporary life have really vanquished is a mindset. In the 1950s, it was obvious that there was one way that we should live our adult lives–as a couple, and then as a nuclear family. No one needed to write books with titles like “The Case for Marriage” because the case was self-evident. Even people who really did not fit into the mold of the heterosexual couple and nuclear family did not often make much of a fuss about it. They didn’t realize that within the overwhelming numbers of people who got married and had kids were other people just like them–people who were doing that because that’s what everyone else did, because that’s what needed to be done to survive, because there were no models of other ways of living (or at least none that got much attention).
Marriage dominated not because it really was the best way to live for everyone, but because it was uncontested. No, it was even more extreme than that–hardly anyone even thought to try to contest it.
Even if more people get married tomorrow than they did today, even if next year, people start marrying at younger ages than they did last year, marriage will never be the same.
Marriage was once the only way to live. It was, we thought, the only truly good and moral and deeply rewarding way to journey through life.
That’s over. That is so over. That marriage is dead.
[Note. A few other recent posts elsewhere that may be of interest: “The husband assumption” and “Required to hear false information – and pay for it – in order to divorce?”]