Friday, December 02, 2005

The Education Crossover in Divorce Attitudes

In the 1970s, college graduates had more liberal attitudes toward divorce than less-educated people did. Today, college graduates have more conservative attitudes toward divorce than less-educated people do. The crossover seems to have happened in the late 1990s, according to research by Steven Martin and Sangeeta Parashar that I mentioned yesterday. Yet this is not because college graduates are generally more conservative today than less educated people are – quite the contrary. So what accounts for the change, and what does it mean?

Martin and Parashar measured responses from 1974 to 2002 on the nationally representative General Social Survey. The GSS asked, “Should divorce in this country be easier or more difficult to obtain than it is now?” College graduates once were more likely than high-school educated Americans to say yes; now they are more likely to say no. This crossover is more pronounced among women than among men.

At the first explosion of women’s economic opportunities in the 1970s, the big spike in divorce in that era was explained by women’s economic independence from men, as well as a general liberalizing of all attitudes. The standard expectation then, and probably the norm still today, is that marriage will continue to decline because women are free to live as individuals. Today, though, women are even more economically independent, but it is the most financially secure women who most favor tightening divorce laws.

The key variable that Martin and Parashar identify is that female college graduates were less likely to be married in the 1970s than their less-educated peers, and now they are significantly more likely to be married than the high-school-only group. Even the not-yet-married college women want and expect to marry, more than their unmarried and less-educated peers. And it is the unmarried college graduates who most clearly want divorce to be tougher, so it is not the experience of marriage itself that makes the difference. Martin and Parashar’s bottom line:

Our best answer is that across the time period 1974 to 2002, conservative attitudes and values gradually became a less important predictor of attitudes toward divorce, while family structure variables became, if anything, more important predictors of attitudes toward divorce.

Martin and Parashar think that divorce costs college graduates more, especially in lost family income. Moreover, as I noted previously, collegians are more likely to know the new social science research showing the great advantages of marriage, and the huge costs of divorce.

I think there is another possible explanation of why liberals, as well as conservatives, would want tougher divorce laws. This would explain why political values don’t predict divorce attitudes as well as they used to, without making them irrelevant to the question.

Martin and Parashar found that in the 1970s, people who were personally conservative were more likely to favor more restrictive divorce laws. Today, people who are conservative and many people who are liberal favor more divorce restrictions. This might mean that values matter less. Or it might mean that values matter just as much as ever in how people approach their own marriages and their own ideas about divorce. It is the facts in the rest of the world that have changed. Divorce is much easier to get now than in 1974, so favoring divorce restriction now is not as conservative a position as it was then. Educated opinion then was very optimistic that easy divorce would mean happier marriages and happier kids. Today, educated people know that the social effect of an easy divorce culture has been just the opposite. This might make liberals join conservatives in wanting to reduce divorce in society, even if their personal approach to their own marriages is as liberal as that of their 1970s counterparts. Values still matter, but the facts have changed. And educated people know the facts better.


Anonymous said...

Isn't it possible that today's college students are more conservative just because they're reacting to their parents? And the trauma visited upon them by their parents' divorces?

If the 70s college students were so much more liberal towards divorce, it's likely that many of their own marriages ended in divorce. Today's college students are likely their children. So it wouldn't be surprising if today's students have become more conservative regarding divorce simply because of their own childhood experience with it.

This pretty closely follows my own life. My liberal parents, who were in college and grad school in the 70s, divorced in the 80s. It was awful for me as a child, and I will do anything not to repeat it. While I'm no longer a college student, I am in my twenties, and I'm MUCH more conservative than my parents regarding divorce. They still think it's no big deal. I would absolutely vote for stricter divorce laws.

Gruntled said...


I had actually written two alternative readings for the educational crossover data, the second one being excactly what you say. I decided to hold off on publishing it until I have a chance to check with the General Social Survey, since the original paper did not consider generational differences.

Michael Kruse said...
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Michael Kruse said...

Kate, your story is one I have heard over and over again from young adults. I have heard young adults from a wide range of political perspectives speak of the trauma of divorce and their determination to prevent it from happening to them and their children. Anecdotally, I think your observations are right on. I will be curious to see what Beau founds out from the GSS data.

Gruntled said...

I think Kate's story is quite common, too. I believe that is why Elizabeth Marquardt's book is making such an impression.