Marriage rates and the libertarian-libertine assault on the American Dream

by Ryan Streeter on January 2, 2012. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

Question: What has jumped from 12 to 48 percent in 38 years? And what has jumped from 20 to 61 percent during the same period?

Answer: To the former question, that’s the percentage of women aged 25-29 who had never married in 1970 and 2008, respectively. The latter is the percentage for men.

Well, you might say, people are simply delaying marriage until their 30s, so that’s not a really big deal. But the truth is that the numbers spike in the 30-34 age range, too, from 7 to 28 percent for women and 11 to 37 percent for men.

I was rummaging around the Population Reference Bureau web site this morning (I know, what better way to gear up for beer and college football later this afternoon?) and came across this chart:

As I mulled over the numbers, it got me to thinking of David Brooks’ excellent column last week on why the Obama team’s comparison of America’s situation today to the progressive era 100 years ago is flawed. David gives three reasons: first, we aren’t the jobs machine that America was 100 years ago; second, government is much, much different in size and scope; and third, the moral culture is very different.

On the third point, David writes:

The progressive era still had a Victorian culture, with its rectitude and restrictions. Back then, there was a moral horror at the thought of debt. No matter how bad the economic problems became, progressive-era politicians did not impose huge debt burdens on their children. That ethos is clearly gone.

In the progressive era, there was an understanding that men who impregnated women should marry them. It didn’t always work in practice, but that was the strong social norm. Today, that norm has dissolved. Forty percent of American children are born out of wedlock. This sentences the U.S. to another generation of widening inequality and slower human capital development.

One hundred years ago, we had libertarian economics but conservative values. Today we have oligarchic economics and libertarian moral values — a bad combination.

Libertarians on the right and libertines on the left never see much of anything to worry about in numbers such as those in the chart above, but pretty much anyone else with common sense can see the problem, which is related to Brooks’ point: people just aren’t aspiring to marriage as they used to, and by extension, they aren’t aspiring to family as they used to, which reflects a huge shift in the moral understanding of the good life in America.

Family – getting married, and then having kids – used to be woven together with other threads of the American Dream. Not so anymore. Over the past generation, we have been severing the Dream from that notion of family, and with pretty disastrous consequences.

Libertarians and libertines will continue to argue against all evidence that these trends really don’t matter to the Dream, which can be much more easily formulated in purely materialistic terms. But the truth is our shift in mores about family formation is exacting a profound toll on our socioeconomic health, but with hardly a sound. What’s worse, we likely haven’t seen the end of this shift, as the Millennials – despite all that’s been written about their good relationships with their parents – don’t show much interest in the pursuit of family as part of the American Dream.

  • Femmenet

    The economy is why people aren’t interested in marrying. When it improves, so will the marriage rate.