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Social Mobility Memos

Is Marriage Coming Back?

Isabel V. Sawhill

At a seminar to discuss my new book, Generation Unbound, we had a lively debate on the question of whether marriage can be restored in the United States with some believing it will be and others being more skeptical. Although I have tended to fall into the latter camp, the simple truth is that none of us knows. Here is my current list of reasons to be optimistic or pessimistic on this front.

Reasons to be optimistic about the future of marriage

  1. Well-educated elites are still marrying. This model will eventually trickle down to the less well-educated.
  2. Marriage has many benefits for both adults and children. It’s only a matter of time until most people realize this.
  3. Marriage is not just a piece of paper; it is a legally and socially supported institution in our culture.
  4. Marriage is an essential part of many people’s religious faiths.
  5. Marriage is one of the best antipoverty policies in existence and liberals are beginning to realize this.
  6. The LGBT community, by embracing marriage as a right worth fighting for, is demonstrating its value as a commitment device and adding its voices to the marriage movement.

Reasons to worry about the future of marriage

  1. Major demographic trends, once they gain a certain momentum, are hard to reverse.
  2. The youngest generation is marrying less than older ones, suggesting this is the wave of the future.
  3. Groups with low marriage rates (minorities) are becoming a larger share of the population
  4. Other advanced countries are also seeing a decline in marriage, suggesting the trend has little to do with a lack of specific policies in the U.S.
  5. The more fundamental source of the decline appears to be women’s greater opportunities to support themselves and to establish identities separate from those of wife and mother.
  6. Single parenthood may replicate itself intergenerationally by reducing the life chances of children, especially boys with absent fathers.

Whatever the future of marriage, one thing is clear: the decline in marriage and the growing number of children born out of wedlock has important implications for social mobility. I discuss these issues further in my new book, Generation Unbound. If you’d like to join the debate, I am on twitter at @isawhill.

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