Marriage continues to have considerable prestige, and the wedding itself is seen as a status symbol. But instead of serving as a foundation of a successful adult life (a “cornerstone”), it is seen as a culmination of a successful young adulthood (a “capstone”), according to the authors of the Knot Yet report on delayed marriage.
Cherlin’s “The Deinstitutionalization of American Marriage” ends with three scenarios. In the first, marriage is reinstitutionalized: the share of adults who enter marriages increases, these marriages prove more durable, and we shift away from the individualistic orientation to the family that has arguably been the central cultural development of the last century. Cherlin also suggests that this scenario might entail a decline in female labor force participation and a return to a more traditional gendered division of labor, a development that is extremely unlikely. In the second, something like the status quo endures: marriage remains common and distinctive, though it does not recover to mid-20th-century levels, and it retains its status as the most prestigious type of family relationship. At the same time, the stability of marriage continues to erode, and the share of intact marriages among white Americans continues to converge with the lower share among black Americans. Cherlin is skeptical as to whether this second scenario is realistic, and he is more skeptical still about the first.
And so he leaves us with the third scenario, in which marriage fades away. The premise is that the persistence of relatively high marriage rates reflects an institutional lag, as people fail to realize that the benefits of marriage relative to cohabitation are far smaller than had historically been the case. In this world of nonmarital relationships, family disruption will become even more common, as commitments are more private, voluntary, and informal than public, ritualized, and governed by law. This model might fit the needs of childless college-educated adults relatively well, yet the lack of enforceable trust poses challenges to individuals who face resource constraints, and even greater challenges to parents who aim to provide a stable and supportive environment for children.
In my view, the future of the social-democratic policy agenda, which I briefly discuss in a forthcoming article for National Review, is best understood in the context of a post-marital society, in which the transition from relationships built on enforceable trust to “pure relationships,” or relationships in which enforceable trust is absent, is complete. If families can’t provide a stable environment for children, universal early education is designed to help fill in the gap. That is, the job of cultivating noncognitive and cognitive skills is to be outsourced from households to the public sector. Marriages have traditionally constituted small risk pools, in which both partners are able to support each other in adapting to changed economic circumstances. The evaporation of marriage thus creates a demand for measures like wage insurance and increased levels of social assistance, to allow families to provide for their children in the absence of savings.
A more atomized society will tend to demand higher levels of public service provision, which is why libertarian skepticism towards the project of reinstitutionalizing marriage is (arguably) misplaced. Or perhaps libertarians are right to try to build a market-oriented policy agenda that can be reconciled with a post-marital society — e.g., one in which the retrenchment of public social provision gives rise to innovative private sector alternatives, including new vehicles for enforceable trust. My suspicion is that it will be very difficult to construct such a post-marital libertarian agenda, but that’s not to suggest it’s a futile effort.
Read more at the National Review.
Read more at the National Review.