Monday, August 07, 2006

For Men at the Bottom, Unmarried Life Nears the 25% Threshold

It is rare for a man to get to 40 and never have been married. The unmarried proportion has been rising in most of the big demographic groups – all education levels, all races, both sexes. Still, the vast majority of people marry. For educated people, the marriage rate has stabilized, and may even have turned the corner.

For forty-something men who did not finish high school, though, nearly a quarter have never been married. This is up from about 8% 25 years ago. The big thing that has changed is that there used to be more women than men at the lowest levels of education. Since women prefer to marry more educated men, this was still a favorable ratio for the least educated men. In the past quarter century, however, women have passed men at all levels of education. This is good news for the most educated men, but bad news for those at the bottom.

In the 1960s Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously sounded the alarm bells on the declining black family when the black illegitimacy rate hit 25% (the white rate at that time was in single digits). He was widely excoriated, but he was right. Since then the bottom has fallen out of the black marriage rate. For uneducated black men, hitting 40 having never married has been the norm for some time. When we now see that marriage is shrinking for all men at the educational bottom, alarm bells should ring, too.

I am not an alarmist. The sky is not falling. Most importantly, there are always things that we can do to reverse bad social trends. Most of these unmarried men would like to marry and have children. Some are afraid of divorce. Some have no secure jobs, which scares them as well as potential wives. Marriage is a risk, and they are not irrational to fear taking it. And marrying without secure jobs or a reliable place in the economic and status ladder increases that risk. But what they are missing is that no one marries in complete security, no matter where they are on the economic ladder. And marriage itself increases the odds of steadiness and security. Couples, even poorly educated couples, help one another through economic rough patches. AND more education is always possible, to improve your odds.

Less education is likely to mean less marriage for men always. But we could stop the erosion of marriage at the bottom before we get to the 25% mark.


Anonymous said...

Not to start a flame war, but why is not being married considered a bad thing? Perhaps it is not for everyone, and people are starting to realize that the high divorce rate is an indicator that people are jumping into marriage too quickly.

gruntled said...

Marriage is, indeed, not for everyone, but the historic norm is that about 90% marry. If any group as a 25% never-married rate, I have to think that most of them didn't get that way by choice.