Over at the Washington Post, Catherine Rampell highlights an interesting and unexpected trend in new federal survey data on marriage, sex, and other social questions: As young Americans have grown increasingly liberal on issues like pre-marital sex, single-parent families, and cohabitation, they have also grown increasingly conservative on the question of divorce:
Respondents were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement that “Divorce is usually the best solution when a couple can’t seem to work out their marriage problems.” In 2002, about half of Americans disagreed. Within a decade, the share had risen to more than 60 percent. In the most recent data, younger Americans — a cohort with the lowest marriage rates on record, mind you — were especially likely to perceive divorce as an unacceptable response to marital strain.
Rampell plausibly interprets this as evidence of a type of latent cultural conservatism within the famously progressive Millennial generation. This may well be the case—as we’ve noted before, there is good evidence that Millennials are increasingly waiting to get married before having children, and opting for a more or less traditional division of work and family responsibilities with their partners. So it could be that Millennials are like the Baby Boomers from the 1960s and 1970s: They are experimenting with new, progressive social attitudes, but they will ultimately tie the knot and live relatively conventional, nuclear-family lifestyles. On this reading, the fact that Millennials are delaying marriage for economic reasons obscures some of their underlying traditionalist impulses.
But there is also a less optimistic (for social conservatives) way of reading the data. It could also be that the two trends Rampbell describes—increasing liberalism on the majority of “familial and procreative arrangements,” and increasing conservatism on divorce—are not conflicting, but complementary. Maybe young Americans are putting marriage on a pedestal, and holding married people to high standards, precisely because marriage as an institution seems so abstract and distant to them. This could be a self-reinforcing mechanism: The more young people adopt a permissive lifestyle where marriage is not a precondition to sex or cohabitation or childrearing, the more they imagine marriage—for people who do enter into it—as a sacred and restrictive institution. And the more they sacralize marriage, the more likely they are to stay away from it. In that sense, it’s possible that the data on divorce are not an exception to young peoples’ otherwise broad-based cultural liberalism, but a natural corollary to it. As the importance of marriage diminishes, it may be that the (hypothetical) norms attached to marriage are tightened.
Of course, neither we nor Rampell have a definitive explanation for the data, which clearly complicates many popular assumptions about America’s young people. Other commentators and social scientists should weigh in.