A lot of people have been talking about marriage recently, from across the political spectrum. In the ongoing struggle over same-sex marriage, North Carolina passed an amendment banning same-sex marriage and civil unions in early May, and President Obama voiced his support of marriage equality the very next day. We’re also hearing about the “end of men” or, especially since the beginning of the Great Recession, the “mancession,” which paints pictures of female ascendancy and male decline, and how that role reversal will affect marriages. And then there’s the firestorm sparked by Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, in which Murray uses falling marriage rates and rising divorce rates (along with honesty, industriousness, and religiosity) to support his claim that the white working class is in moral decline.
Suffice to say that we are in the midst of a period when journalists and academics are heavily scrutinizing the institution of marriage, offering interpretations of the demographic shifts documented by the 2010 Census and recent think-tank reports, but more importantly, predicting what will become of it in the future, why and how it will continue to change, and how society will be affected by those changes.
What intrigues me most in all of these ongoing threads about marriage is the way marriage is increasingly being discussed as a marker of class. While he wasn’t the first to make the link, Murray grabbed the spotlight by highlighting the connection between class and marriage, and critics’ efforts to rebut his claims kept the issue alive.
Both Murray and his critics agree that marriage patterns differ markedly by class. Because marriage rates among the middle and upper classes have not declined over the past two decades, and their divorce rates are low, and because marriage rates have plummeted for white working-class and working-poor people, and their divorce rates have stayed high, marital status is, increasingly, a pretty good sign of what class someone belongs to. Murray finds a 35 percentage point difference in the rates of married couples in the middle/upper class and working-class communities on which he based his study (83% v. 48%). He ties the difference to the radically lower rate of divorce in the middle/upper class community and the significantly higher number of never-married people in the working-class community he studies. He says that the increase in this number since 1960 is “driven mostly by the retreat of men from the marriage market.”
Critics of Murray accept his basic claim but disagree about the cause of these shifts. Where Murray sees moral decline, his critics point to declining incomes and employment instability among working-class people. Adding fuel to the economic argument is compelling research showing that while the rates of marriage and divorce differ, the stated values around marriage are remarkably consistent across classes. Working-class and working-poor people marry at lower rates, but not because they don’t believe in marriage. Across the class spectrum, people consistently report that marriage should be delayed until they are in a stable, supportive, and loving relationship, of course, but also until they have economic stability. Perhaps the best explanation for the difference in marriage rates lies in the relative ease with which one group achieves economic stability while the other struggles to do so.
We can’t fully understand how economic factors contribute to marriage becoming a marker of class unless we throw gender into the mix. As someone involved in both Working-Class Studies and Women’s Studies, I am deeply interested in the gendered dimensions of economic change, including how the ongoing economic crisis is shaping the institution of marriage within working class and working poor communities. Working-class men, as individuals, have been hit harder by the economic shifts of the last 30 years than working-class women. Working-class men’s employment and wages have been undermined in ways that make being a breadwinner increasingly difficult. And the breadwinner role is still important to large numbers of working-class men, even as women now make up half the workforce, and single-earner families are increasingly rare. Economic crises cause identity crises that undeniably shape working-class men’s self-image, but they also influence working-class women’s choices about whether and when to marry them.
And what of working-class women? Here’s where things get interesting and complicated. As individuals, working-class women have made some gains. While working-class families used to be more likely to use their limited resources to send their sons rather than their daughters to college, this trend has reversed. Today, working-class women of all races attend and graduate from college in substantially higher numbers than working-class men. The employment picture looks better as well. Working-class women have greater employment stability than men, and they are more likely to work in fields that are predicted to experience the greatest growth over the next decade.
But are these real gains, or do they just look like gains relative to working-class men’s losses? Do we really want to measure working-class women’s gains separately from the losses of working-class men, especially when those losses seem to be so dramatically affecting marriage rates?
Murray uses marriage and divorce statistics to make a bold claim about the decline of morality among the white working class, and plenty of people have rebutted him, but no one has really stepped forward with an insider’s view. In all of this talk about marriage in the wake of Murray’s book, I find myself wishing for the voices of working-class people. Hearing directly from working-class couples, whether married or cohabiting, might shed some light on whether and how improved economic circumstances would result in a rebounding of marriage rates among the working class.
It is not a foregone conclusion that marriage will henceforth be a marker of class. After all, this certainly wouldn’t be the first time that academics and journalists have interpreted marriage statistics in ways that turned out to be dead wrong. But while I think that predictions of the demise of marriage in the working classes are premature, I am willing to step out on a limb and predict that gender roles among working-class couples are in the midst of a transformation that will have lasting effects for decades to come.
Christie Launius directs the Women’s Studies program at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh and is helping plan the 2013 Working-Class Studies Association conference, to be held in Madison, WI.