By Stephanie Coontz
OVER the past 40 years, the geography of family life has been destabilized by two powerful forces pulling in opposite directions and occasionally scraping against each other, much like tectonic plates. One is the striking progress toward equality between men and women. The other is the equally striking growth of socioeconomic inequality and insecurity.
Since the 1970s, families have become more egalitarian in their internal relationships. But inequality among families has soared. Women have become more secure as their real wages and legal rights have increased. But families have become more insecure as their income and job instability have worsened.
Sometimes these trends counteract each other, with women’s work gains partly compensating for men’s losses in low-income families. Sometimes they reinforce each other, since the new trend for high-earning men to marry high-earning women increases the relative advantage of such couples over low-income or single-earner families. For all Americans, these trends have changed the rewards, risks and rules of marriage.
In 1977, two-thirds of Americans believed that the ideal family arrangement was for the husband to earn the money and the wife to stay home. By 2012, less than one-third still held this belief, according to a paper coming out this week by the Council on Contemporary Families.
Husbands have doubled the time they spend doing housework. One frequently cited study suggested that couples who shared housework equally had sex less frequently than couples who followed a more conventional division of labor. But a forthcoming study of more recent marriages finds that egalitarian couples report no difference in sexual frequency or satisfaction compared to couples who cling to traditional roles — the exception being the about 5 percent of marriages in which the husband performs most of the housework.
The researchers Christine R. Schwartz and Hongyun Han reportanother striking indication of continuing progress toward marital equality. Through the 1980s, couples in which the wife had more education than her husband were more likely to divorce than couples in which the wife had less or equal education. But couples who have married since the early 1990s have no added divorce risk when the wife is better educated. In fact, the researchers found hints that such couples may now be less likely to divorce than those in which the husband has more education.
But while the sexes have become more equal, society as a whole has become far less, producing especially deep losses for young men. In 1969, by the time men reached age 25, three-quarters were earning wages that could support a family of four above the poverty line. By 2004, it took until age 30 for the same percentage of men to reach this income level. And while in 1969 only 10 percent of men ages 30 to 35 were still low earners, by 2004 almost a quarter of men in that age range remained low earners.
Rising inequality has changed family dynamics for all socioeconomic groups.
In 1970, marriage rates varied little by level of education, although men and women with only a high school degree were somewhat more likely to marry than those with a college degree. In the 1970s, divorce rates rose sharply for all educational groups. Since then, however, marriage and divorce patterns have diverged.
Among Americans without college degrees, marriage rates have fallen precipitously and divorce rates remain higher. Divorce rates have fallen for college-educated couples, who are now considerably more likely to get married, and stay married, than their less-educated counterparts. According to the sociologist Philip N. Cohen, among 40-somethings with at least a bachelor’s degree, as of 2012, 63 percent of men and 59 percent of women were in their first marriage, compared to just 43 percent of men and 42 percent of women without a bachelor’s degree.
High-earning women have actually increased their marriage rates since the 1970s. In 1980, only 58 percent of high-earning women were married, compared to 64 percent in 2010.
So among college-educated Americans, women’s increased earning power seems to have stabilized marriages. And in some ways inequality actually makes life easier for such couples, since more Americans are available to work as nannies and house-cleaners for relatively low wages.
But educated couples have not escaped the insecurity that has accompanied the polarization of incomes. The gap between the highest and lowest paid college graduates has widened substantially since the ‘70s, and the real earnings of young graduates actually fell between 2000 and 2013.
When the sociologist Marianne Cooper interviewed affluent Silicon Valley couples for her new book, “Cut Adrift: Families in Insecure Times,” she was struck by the anxiety they expressed about their retirement prospects, and especially about how to provide their children with the skills, résumés and entrepreneurial personality traits they believe are now needed to succeed in a “winner-take-all” job market.
College-educated parents have increased the time they spend with their children at twice the rate of other Americans since the 1990s, much of it devoted to chauffeuring kids to games, camps and other activities. But these frenetic schedules are stressful and may interfere with the time couples have to spend alone, which is important to marital quality. This could be dangerous down the road, because divorce rates among couples over 50 have more than doubled since 1990, and because the protective factor of high education is not as great in late-life divorces. According to Susan L. Brown and I-Fen Lin, sociologists at Bowling Green State University, the divorce rates of college graduates over 50 are almost as high as those of high school graduates.
OVER all, though, family instability has increased most among less-educated Americans.
Men with only a high school diploma, the sociologist Andrew J. Cherlin points out in his forthcoming book, “Labor’s Love Lost,” used to be the mainstay of family stability in the working class. However, the male-breadwinner marriages that such men established in the 1950s and 1960s rested on two pillars that no longer exist.
The first was the availability of stable, family-wage jobs for young men without a college education. Blue-collar men could marry early, knowing that even if their starting wages were low they could anticipate predictable increases each year — and expect their children and grandchildren to do even better.
10 days ago
There is a huge and fatal flaw in this article, and in the view, repeated over and over by liberals (e.g. Cahn/Carbone), that economic...
10 days ago
Lotsa facts and figures here but, at the risk of being branded cynical, I'd love to see some facts and figures on whether the stability of...
10 days ago
I see nothing but good news here. People nostalgic for the " good old days" of traditional marriage should read some Victorian novels, which...
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Over the 25 years between 1947 and 1972, the average real hourly compensation of production and nonsupervisory workers nearly doubled, rising by almost 3 percent a year, according to the University of Iowa professor Colin Gordon. Confidence in future progress imbued workers with a sense that deferring gratification and sticking it out would eventually pay off, making work a powerful force promoting young men’s maturation.
The second pillar supporting the stable marriages of the postwar era was the fact that most women could not earn a living wage on their own. Fifty years ago, the average college-educated woman earned less than the average high-school-educated man. Female workers, whatever their education level, had much shorter job tenures than males, and their real wages remained almost flat.
The result was that a young man could take almost any job and expect his earnings to improve substantially with time. Conversely, a young woman could marry almost any man and expect that he could support a family far better than she ever could. The prospect of ever-improving economic security made young men more likely to stay with their employers, especially since so many belonged to unions that advanced their collective interests. And the lack of earnings prospects for women made them more likely to stay with their husbands.
Today, job prospects for young men are far less favorable. Real wages for men under age 35 have fallen almost continuously since the late 1970s, and those with only a high school diploma have experienced the sharpest losses. Between 1979 and 2007, young male high school graduates saw a 29 percent decline in real annual earnings — an even steeper decline than the 18 percent drop for men with no high school diploma.
The biggest problem facing high-school-educated young men, Dr. Cherlin points out, is not that they have lost their work ethic but that they have few opportunities to develop one. Traditional working-class jobs are disappearing, and even if a man can find the same blue-collar job that his father or grandfather held, his wages will no longer sustain a family. Between 1947 and 1979, the wages of the average meatpacking worker, adjusted for inflation, increased by around 80 percent, to just under $40,000 per year. But from 1979 to 2012, a meatpacker’s wages declined by nearly 30 percent, to about $27,000.
Women’s wages, by contrast, have risen significantly since the 1970s, except for those on the very bottom, who have suffered, like men, from the decline in the real value of the minimum wage. For a low or moderately educated woman, marrying a man who has a job and is willing to share his resources is still an advantage. But she has to consider the very real possibility that if he loses his job or misuses the couple’s resources, he may become a financial burden.
Meanwhile, women’s expectation of fairness and reciprocity in marriage has been rising even as men’s ability to compensate for deficits in their behavior by being “good providers” has been falling. Low-income women consistently tell researchers that the main reason they hesitate to marry — even if they are in love, even if they have moved in with a man to share expenses, and even if they have a child — is that they see a bad marriage or divorce as a greater threat to their well-being than being single.
Their fears are justified. Chronic economic stress is associated with an increased incidence of depression, domestic violence, alcohol or drug abuse and infidelity, all of which raise the risk of divorce. If a woman’s marriage breaks up or her husband squanders their resources, she may end up worse off than if she had remained single and focused on improving her own earning power.
If women lowered their expectations to match men’s lower economic prospects, perhaps marriage would be more common in low-income communities. But it would most likely be even less stable, and certainly less fair.
Turning back the inequality revolution may be difficult. But that would certainly help more families — at almost all income levels — than turning back the gender revolution.
Stephanie Coontz is a faculty member at Evergreen State College and the director of research at the Council on Contemporary Families.