Katherine Kersten: What on Earth is happening to marriage?

A new report has the bad news for all of us - a growing class marriage gap.

Commentary

The growing "marriage gap" is one of our nation's most important and troubling trends. For Americans with college degrees (30 percent of the population), marriage -- our bedrock social institution -- is stable and getting stronger. But for the moderately educated (the 58 percent with a high school but not a college diploma), it's in precipitous decline. In fact, the family life of America's once-great middle class is quickly becoming almost as fragile as that of our poorest citizens -- the 12 percent who are high school dropouts.

The disturbing details are in a new study -- "When Marriage Disappears: The Retreat from Marriage in Middle America" -- by the University of Virginia's National Marriage Project and the Institute for American Values. The conclusion is stark: "The United States is devolving into a separate-and-unequal family regime, where the highly educated and affluent enjoy strong and stable households and everyone else is consigned to increasingly unstable, unhappy, and unworkable ones."

Only 11 percent of college-educated Americans now divorce or separate in the first ten years of marriage, while 37 percent of their high school-educated peers do. Sixty-nine percent of highly educated married adults report a "very happy" marriage, while only 57 percent of the moderately educated and 52 percent of the least educated say the same.

The gap on non-marital child-bearing is jaw-dropping: Only 6 percent of college-educated mothers' babies are born out-of-wedlock, while it's 44 percent for moderately educated mothers and 54 percent for high school dropouts. In the 1980s, those figures were 2 percent, 13 percent and 33 percent, respectively.

What explains this?

Americans of all backgrounds still agree on the value of marriage -- roughly 75 percent say "being married" is very important to them. But the meaning of marriage has changed dramatically in the last 40 years, according to the authors. A new model has greatly raised the bar, both emotional and financial, on what it takes to get and stay married.

In the past, our society adhered to the "institutional" model of marriage. This model seeks to "integrate sex, parenthood, economic cooperation, and emotional intimacy" into the sort of "good-enough" marriage that our grandparents expected -- and which most of us can still attain. Today, however, that model is being displaced by a yuppie-style "soul mate" model, which sees marriage primarily as a "couple-centered vehicle for personal growth, emotional intimacy, and shared consumption that depends for its survival" on happiness and constant self-fulfillment.

Many college-educated Americans are well-equipped to achieve a soul-mate-type marriage. They generally plan their lives using what the report calls the "success sequence:" a focus first on education and work, then on marriage, followed by child-bearing. This requires developing such virtues as delay of gratification and hard work. It also minimizes such stresses as out-of-wedlock birth, and maximizes financial resources that can be used for self-fulfillment.

But a "soul mate" marriage is beyond the reach of a growing number of moderately educated and poor adults. Today, these Americans tend to have more sexual partners, substance abuse, infidelity and unplanned pregnancies than do their college-educated peers, according to the report. Men in particular tend to embrace a "live-for-the-moment" ethic, and to have "long periods of idleness." This is hardly a recipe for marital success.

Moderately educated Americans are also disengaging from institutions of work and civil society to a much greater degree than are those with college degrees. In the last 40 years, high school-educated men have become significantly more likely than college-educated men to experience bouts of unemployment, the report says. At the same time, the moderately educated are abandoning churches, Lions Clubs and VFW groups that supported their grandparents' "institutional" marriages, and that teach "the habits of the heart" that sustain strong marriages.

Americans increasingly see marriage not as the gateway to adulthood but as a "capstone" that "signals couples have arrived, both financially and emotionally," according to the report.

The marriage gap is bad news for all. Young people without married parents are at risk for a host of social pathologies. Single mothers are more likely to live in poverty, while single men risk detachment from their children and from what the report calls the "civilizing power" of marriage.

If marriage becomes "a luxury good," in the report's words, consequences will be severe. This fundamental social institution "has long served the American experiment in democracy as an engine of the American Dream, a seedbed of virtue for children, and one of the few sources of social solidarity in a nation that otherwise prizes individual liberty."

Katherine Kersten is a Twin Cities writer and speaker. Reach her at kakersten@gmail.com.

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