Consider: in 1970, 69 percent of 25-year-old and 85 percent of 30-year-old white men were married; in 2000, only 33 percent and 58 percent were, respectively. And the percentage of young guys tying the knot is declining as you read this. Census Bureau data show that the median age of marriage among men rose from 26.8 in 2000 to 27.5 in 2006—a dramatic demographic shift for such a short time period.
Hymowitz offers several complex reasons why this is the case. But I say the simplest answer is true: American men today delay the act of reproduction and union because they devalue it. Because technology and culture (today, technology is culture) unite to encourage them to devalue it — to favor distraction over maturity, personal growth over familial growth, and self over society.
And what distractions there are to be had. American men and women inhabit a community of constant and unending pornography. Forget the flesh industry or the cheesecake mags — they pale in comparison to the dominance of the tabloid, the tawdry, the never-ending burlesque show of human failure among the powerful, the celebrity, and your average American family. One captured image of a faux pas, inappropriate comment, or sad incident can enter America’s grind house almost instantaneously, and be identified as an object of worldwide derision, hilarity, or controversy. Fifteen minutes of fame turn into fifteen seconds of life-destroying embarrassment. Just think how lucky you could be: tonight, David Letterman could be mocking you for a few cheap laughs (tomorrow, it could be Jon Stewart, and then people will notice). Who needs bread or circuses when you can find plenty of material to avoid boredom in the frailties of your fellow crowd members? Who would want children, why would you ever have children, if your view of child-rearing is Jon and Kate plus Eight?
Within the next few years, the American male will hit the highest median age for marriage in the history of the country. Perhaps this is a product of the new economy. Or perhaps it is the result of a media-altered vision of womanhood – young men who have an airbrushed vision of the opposite sex in mind can become reluctant to settle for normalcy and the face to face of the real world. In this technologically advanced age, it is far better, easier, and more enjoyable, we are told, to stay a permanent member in the fraternity of self, when life is a series of images and screens, you have responsibilities to defend and protect no one but yourself, and your relationships are managed, adjusted, and mocked (always ironically — it is your ironic perspective that makes you unique!) through keyboards.
Conor Friedersdorf at Sully’s Place responds:
In my experience, most of the folks who are delaying marriage and family do want those things eventually. So why wait? Let me air some alternative explanations. Birth control is one factor. By decreasing the cost of sex, it changes social mores and lessens the benefit of marrying earlier (as does the related decline in the taboo against premarital sex). The rise of career women — now dubbed “women” — is another major factor. Given choices and opportunities beyond being a married homemaker, it is no surprise that many women rationally decide to exercise preferences unavailable to their ancestors — preferences that require intense career focus during one’s early to mid-twenties if ambitions are to be fulfilled.
I’d also like to push back against Mr. Domenech’s culturally driven arguments, which seem to assume that delaying marriage and family imply devaluing those things. Maybe that’s happening, but I’d argue that the opposite is going on too. Young people in the middle and upper classes in America delay marriage partly out of a desire to avoid the rampant divorces that plagued their parents’ generation. The conventional wisdom that some folks “just married to young” leads to years long relationships wherein the participants are cautiously “making sure” that they are “ready to get married.” They may be right to do so!
Peter Lawler at PomoCon:
Here’s a very thoughtful brief essay that features both Tom Wolfe and ME. It’s fairly pessimistic–but still postmodern conservative–because its nostalgia is not for porches and goats but for pilots and astronauts–the members of the Greatest Generation. Those men fought, drank, smoked, reproduced, and generally lived with a nobility, reckless abandon, and love of life that our bourgeois bohemians today find almost insanely irresponsible (see MAD MEN and REVOLUTIONARY ROAD). All the studies show that things have gotten more healthy and just, but at the expense of being men or women in full.
Julian Sanchez with some charts:
We’re spending longer in school before we enter the workforce, and we expect the kids we have to do the same, at substantial cost. Alternatively, this confirms the conservative thesis that book larnin’ corrupts. Your call.
UPDATE: Domenech responds to Conor:
When people get married and have children, they transform from being a potential society to being real societies, creating a cycle of productivity and inheritance that allows individuals to succeed and surpass their parents, and forming a community of stability and support that dramatically reduces the demand for larger government to provide for the health and economic needs of the young (as poverty is feminized), the infirm (as caregivers disappear), and the aging. Increases in the number of unwed and childless individuals necessitates demand for expanded social programs and governmental authority to take the place of family. As a putative conservative, it surprises me somewhat that Conor would take issue with a position as paramount to conservatism in all its forms as the importance of culture, and the family as a crucial element of American culture. Or perhaps that is just the price of admission if one wishes to be published in The Daily Dish?
Since Conor blogs at about 2,343,367 places right now, I haven’t found a response yet. Will keep looking.
James Poulos responds:
So I ask you: Is our hand-wringing over marriage delays and cultural adulthood retardant really the product of a silly pop decade analysis that views one’s teens and one’s twenties and one’s thirties as the same kind of developmental stages that started to emerge with the Boomers? Political decade analysis we owe to the Boomers, too — and why, if not the uncoincidental way in which the decades of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have tracked with the sequential stages of growing up Boomer? To be sure, a broad cultural shift toward delaying marriage twenty years would mean real changes — and not for the better, for some basic biological reasons I could go on about later. But I think those kinds of extreme delays are rare and getting rarer. For Boomers, marriage pejoratively meant arresting your personal development at an early age; for our present-day hipsters, yupsters, grups, etc., marriage aspirationally means something more like achieving full maturity before you’re too old to enjoy it. It’s hard for me to see how a shift in the marriage mean from early to late twenties or early thirties raises ominous questions or worrisome implications. Actually, stabilizing the timing of marriage somewhere in that zone would actually make for a real success in the fight against the relativist proposition that there’s no common-sense judgment we can generally agree on about when it’s good to start a family.