Americans…are postponing marriage to their late twenties and thirties for two main reasons, one economic and the other cultural. Young adults are taking longer to finish their education and stabilize their work lives. Culturally, young adults have increasingly come to see marriage as a “capstone” rather than a “cornerstone”—that is, something they do after they have all their other ducks in a row, rather than a foundation for launching into adulthood and parenthood.
For college educated men and women (only 12 percent of whom have a first child outside of marriage), this “capstone” typically comes later after achieving some sort of professional and financial independence. But this model leaves much of the working class behind, as many have trouble achieving this independence. While they have joined their more educated peers in delaying marriage, the “foundation” that comes with professional stability is out of reach.Much of this has to do with the economic opportunities of the lower middle class. The manufacturing jobs once occupied by men without a college degree have all but disappeared. In 2010, the national unemployment rate for people aged 16-24 with no college degree stood at 24.6 percent, or more than three times that of those with a higher education. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the lower a man’s wages, the less likely he is to get married.Women without a college degree thus have a shrinking pool of eligible partners due to the increased tendency of Americans to marry within their social class. And with financial stability seemingly out of reach, these women “turn instead to the traditional source of young-adult female identity”: motherhood.This is a real sign of social dysfunction. The decline of marriage and the rise of unwed mothers points to our society’s failure to fulfill one of its most basic responsibilities: preparing younger generations to raise stable, healthy families.This problem isn’t likely to go away anytime soon. Children born into single-parent homes are less likely to graduate from high school, more likely to experience emotional problems, and more likely to have children out of wedlock themselves, thus perpetuating the problem.While politicians focus on burning issues like keeping large soft drinks out of fast food restaurants, one of our core social institutions is crumbling. It’s time we start putting more thought into how to rebuild it.