For the past month, the New York Times has been running a series on “the new gender divide," which "examin[es] what has happened to men and women several decades after the women’s movement began." Sunday’s article , "Facing Middle Age with No Degree, and No Wife," by Eduardo Porter and Michelle O’Donnell, looks at the decline in the number of American marriages.
Data released recently from the U.S. Census Bureau show a dramatic increase in the percentage of Americans of all ages and education levels who have never married. For example, the article opens with the statistic that "about 18 percent of men ages 40 to 44 with less than four years of college have never married. . . . That is up from about 6 percent a quarter-century ago. Among similar men ages 35 to 39, the portion jumped to 22 percent from 8 percent in that time."
Porter and O’Donnell name measurable factors that likely have contributed to the declining marriage rate, including:
(a) The equalizing of salaries paid to men and women (b) A decline in the number of steady blue-collar jobs¯jobs that enable men without college degrees to become financially secure (c) An increase in the number of college-educated women. (Women now make up a larger percentage of undergraduate students than men .) (d) The increasing prevalence of divorce, which makes both men and women wary of investing in a marriage
Porter and O’Donnell give short shrift to cultural contributions to the drop-off in the number of marriages, though they do mention the decline of social pressure on men to marry and the increasing acceptability of cohabitation¯an impermanent arrangement even when compared to the high divorce rate. The authors note that 48 percent of all cohabitations end within three years, rather than 12 percent of marriages in the same time span. The authors examine at some length the possibility that many women now choose not to marry because the men they know are less educated than they are and are therefore chancy financial prospects. This is a narrow view of the situation. It is true that women now attend college in greater numbers than men, that the number of steady blue-collar jobs available to men without college degrees has decreased, and that women, let’s face it, like men with money. But Porter and O’Donnell do not examine the possibility¯which, to be fair, was not examined in the census data they used¯that educated women choose not to marry less-educated men because of a change in the way Americans view education.
Americans with university educations now look at a college diploma the way people fifty years ago, or even twenty-five years ago, looked at a high school diploma. A college diploma signals two things, correctly or incorrectly: that the diploma-holder is responsible and will strive to keep his family from needing to survive paycheck-to-paycheck, and that he has basic familiarity with American culture or some intellectual pursuit, and is thus potentially interesting and companionable. Whether he actually is responsible, interesting, or companionable is irrelevant, as is the certainty that many men who do not have university educations are more responsible, interesting, and companionable than many who do. What matters is the cultural assumption that a woman "marries down" in terms of maturity and intellect, not merely financially, if she marries a man who is not as educated as she is. I imagine that this assumption is widespread enough to account for a statistically significant portion of the drop in marriages.