January 21, 2007
Ideas & Trends
Why Are There So Many Single Americans?
By KATE ZERNIKE
THE news that 51 percent of all women live without a spouse might be enough to make you invest in cat futures.
But consider, too, the flip side: about half of all men find themselves in the same situation. As the number of people marrying has dropped off in the last 45 years, the marriage rate has declined equally for men and for women.
The stereotype has been cemented in the popular culture: the hard-charging career girl who gets her comeuppance, either violently or dying a slow death by late-night memo and Chinese takeout. Think Glenn Close in “Fatal Attraction” and Sigourney Weaver in “Working Girl,” two enduring icons. In last year’s model, Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada” ends up single, if still singularly successful.
But when it comes to marriage, the two Americas aren’t divided by gender. And it’s not the career girls on the losing end. It’s their less educated manicurists or housekeepers, women who might arguably be less able to live on their own.
The emerging gulf is instead one of class — what demographers, sociologists and those who study the often depressing statistics about the wedded state call a “marriage gap” between the well-off and the less so.
Statistics show that college educated women are more likely to marry than non-college educated women — although they marry, on average, two years later. The popular image might have been true even 20 years ago — though generally speaking, most women probably didn’t boil the bunny rabbit the way Ms. Close’s character did in 1987. In the past, less educated women often “married up.” In “Working Girl,” Melanie Griffith triumphs. Now, marriage has become more one of equals; when more highly educated men marry, it tends to be more highly educated women. Today, Harrison Ford and Sigourney Weaver would live happily ever after.
Women with more education also are becoming less likely to divorce, or inclined to divorce, than those with less education. They are even less likely to be widowed all in all, less likely to end up alone.
“Educated women used to have a difficult time,” said David Popenoe, co-director of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University. “Now they’re the most desired.” In Princeton, where he lives, men used to marry “way down the line,” Mr. Popenoe said. No more.
The difference extends across race lines: black women are significantly less likely to marry than white women, but among blacks, women with a college education are more likely to marry than those who do not.
Among women ages 25-34, 59 percent of college graduates are married, compared with 51 percent of non-college graduates, according to an analysis of the Census Bureau’s June 2006 Current Population Survey by Steven P. Martin, a sociologist at the University of Maryland. The same is true at older age groups: the difference is 75 percent to 62 percent for those ages 35-44, and 50 percent to 41 percent among those 65 and older.
The difference is smaller between men and women. According to the census, 55 percent of men are married, down from 69.3 percent in 1960, and 51.5 percent of women are, down from 65.9 percent in 1960.
The number of women living without a spouse is greater largely because women live longer, leaving them more likely to be widowed. Older men are also more likely to remarry. To control for these variables, consider 35-44 year olds. In 2005, according to the census, 66.2 percent of men in this age group were married, down from 88 percent in 1960; 67.2 percent of women were married, down from 87.4 percent.
The marriage gap exists for men, too. But particularly at younger ages, it is not nearly as wide as it is among women.
Commitment-averse men in their 20’s and 30’s, it turns out, look the same whether or not they have a college degree. In surveys and focus groups, they fit depressingly well into the old stereotypes: they fear marriage means a loss of liberty; they worry a wife will want to change them. They don’t trust women to tell the truth about past relationships, or they are waiting for the soul mate who hasn’t appeared. With the rising frequency of cohabitation, they can get sex without marriage, and they might lose their hard-earned money in a divorce, so what’s the rush?
As a Marriage Project report concluded, with no biological or sociological clock ticking, “boys can remain boys indefinitely.”
But that gap widens among older men. Among men ages 25 to 34, 50 percent of college graduates are married, compared to 47 percent of those who did not graduate from college. In older age brackets, there is a difference of 12 percentage points.
The class gap happens in large part because, as Christopher Jencks, a professor of social policy at Harvard, said, “like marries like.”
“If you wanted to predict the characteristics of who I would marry,” he said, “knowing my education, the strongest correlation you could observe is that someone who is educated is more likely to marry someone who is educated, and someone who is not educated is more likely to marry someone who is not educated.”
Why have things changed so much for women who don’t have the choices that educated women have? While marriage used to be something you did before launching a life or career, now it is seen as something you do after you’re financially stable — when you can buy a house, say. The same is true for all classes. But the less educated may not get there.
“Women are saying, ‘I’m not ready, I want to work for a while, the guys I hang around with don’t make enough money and they don’t want a commitment,’ ” Mr. Jencks said. “It’s the same thing a lot of African-American women in poor neighborhoods are saying. But there’s the difference that they’re having children.”
Women of all education levels figure their earning power will flatten out after they have children, he said. “The longer you wait, the higher the level it flattens out at,” he said. “That’s a good argument to wait. For the less educated, there isn’t a steep increase in salary, so there’s less incentive to wait.”
Maybe in the past, a man with little education nevertheless had a good-paying manufacturing job, with a health care and pension plan. He was a catch and represented stability.
Today, it may be hyperbolic to talk about the emasculation of the blue-collar man. But it is not only liberals concerned with the wealth gap who are watching these national trends with alarm. Social and religious conservatives have called on society to do more to address economic strains faced by this class.
“Marriage is more difficult today than it was in the past,” Mr. Popenoe said. “The people who excel in one area probably excel in that area, too. And people who are high school dropouts probably have a higher propensity to drop out of marriage.”
The last 30 years have seen a huge shift in educated women’s attitudes about divorce. Mr. Martin, who has written about women and divorce, said that three decades ago, about 30 percent of women who had graduated from college said it should be harder to get a divorce. Now, about 65 percent say so, he said.
But for less educated women and for men, the numbers have not changed; only 40 percent — a minority — say it should be harder to get a divorce.
“The way we used to look at marriage was that if women were highly educated, they had higher earning power, they were more culturally liberal and people might have predicted less marriage among them,” Mr. Martin said. “What’s becoming more powerful is the idea that economic resources are conducive to stable marriages. Women who have more money or the potential for more money are married to men who have more stable income.”
All this leads to a happiness gap, too. According to the Marriage Project, the percentage of spouses who rate their marriage as “very happy” has dropped among those without a college education, while it has risen or held steady among those better educated.
The better educated husbands and wives tend to share intellectual interests and economic backgrounds, as well as ideas about the division of household roles. They also have more earning power. And as in so many other things, in marriage, money helps ease the way.