When I wrote recently about how most millennials wanted to marry but found marriage out of economic reach, lots of skeptical readers wrote to protest that marriage licenses are cheap. That’s true; licenses are quite affordable, typically running at well under $100 a pop. In exchange, recipients get a lifetime of legal and social protections related to estate planning, hospital visitation, government benefits and the right to shush judgmental relatives’ insinuations about spinsterhood. This probably sounds like a bargain to most Americans.
The economic barrier I was referring to, though, wasn’t the marriage license — or the trip to Zales or the $28,000 price tag for the average American wedding or even the income-tax marriage penalty — but the financial stability young people feel that they (and their partners) need to have before tying the knot.
Don’t take my word for it; look at a new report on declining rates of marriage released last week by Pew Research Center.
A plurality of never-married Americans ages 25 to 34 say the main reason they haven’t gotten married is that they’re not “financially prepared” to do so. Singles want to get their own finances and careers in order before hitching their wagon to another person. More important, they may otherwise have trouble attracting, or keeping, a mate. Especially if they’re of the heterosexual male persuasion.
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When asked what qualities they’re looking for in a potential spouse, never-married men were most likely to say that finding someone who shared “similar ideas about having and raising children” was very important to them. This was a priority for women, too, but not the most commonly cited one.
Women were most likely to say they wanted a spouse with a “steady job.”
You can imagine how this might be a problem, seeing as “steady jobs” are hard to come by these days, especially if you’re young and male. Even more so if you happen to also be low-skilled or black, among the demographics for whom both marriage and employment rates — not coincidentally — have fallen furthest in recent decades.
Wages for young men who are gainfully employed have skidded downward in the past 30 years, by about 20 percent in inflation-adjusted terms. Worse, many don’t find jobs at all. Which means the number of “eligible bachelors” out there — at least as defined by the quality that most women say is important to them in a partner — has fallen.
Consider what’s happened to the gender ratios in the population of never-married Americans, ages 25 to 34: In 1960, there were 139 employed men for every 100 women, primarily because women tend to marry younger than men do. By 2012, the ratio had dropped to 91 employed men for every 100 women.
The ratio is particularly stark for young, never-married African-Americans, among whom there are just 51 employed men for every 100 women. This seems an especially cruel trend when you consider that, of all races surveyed, blacks were most likely to cite a “steady job” as a top criterion for a potential spouse, the Pew report found. Nine out of 10 black women surveyed said this was “very important” in selecting a spouse. Blacks were also most likely to have traditional views about the social significance of marriage, saying that it is “very important” that a couple legally marry if they plan to spend the rest of their lives together.
The lesson of all this: If family-values types want to promote wedlock among the young and noncommittal, they might start not by lecturing about morality but rather by improving the economic prospects for millennials. Higher incomes and better employment prospects, as it turns out, are also associated with lower rates of divorce.
As an aside, I often hear puzzlement about why the gay and lesbian community is so intent on gaining access to an institution that their straight peers are increasingly forgoing. But, actually, the intensifying fight for legal recognition of same-sex unions seems perfectly consistent with declining marriage rates: If you view marriage as aspirational, as a milestone that Americans are sidestepping because of financial insecurity rather than disinterest, of course it makes sense that access to marriage should become more desirable over time, especially to historically marginalized groups.
For most of Western history, marriage was a political and economic transaction (for both the spouses, and the communities they belonged to). In the late 18th century, it began transforming into an institution based on love and soul-mating. Now, it’s about politics and economics once again.
Catherine Rampell’s email address is email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter, @crampell.
© 2014, Washington Post Writers Group