Thursday, January 25, 2007

Bucking The Trend-Making?

The New York Times deserves some credit for finally not only engaging in silly trend-making but also letting someone argue back. Remember the recent article about how women are no longer getting married? Well, there is a response to that one now:

THE news that 51 percent of all women live without a spouse might be enough to make you invest in cat futures.

But consider, too, the flip side: about half of all men find themselves in the same situation. As the number of people marrying has dropped off in the last 45 years, the marriage rate has declined equally for men and for women.

The stereotype has been cemented in the popular culture: the hard-charging career girl who gets her comeuppance, either violently or dying a slow death by late-night memo and Chinese takeout. Think Glenn Close in "Fatal Attraction" and Sigourney Weaver in "Working Girl," two enduring icons. In last year's model, Meryl Streep in "The Devil Wears Prada" ends up single, if still singularly successful.

But when it comes to marriage, the two Americas aren't divided by gender. And it's not the career girls on the losing end. It's their less educated manicurists or housekeepers, women who might arguably be less able to live on their own.

The emerging gulf is instead one of class — what demographers, sociologists and those who study the often depressing statistics about the wedded state call a "marriage gap" between the well-off and the less so.

Statistics show that college educated women are more likely to marry than non-college educated women — although they marry, on average, two years later. The popular image might have been true even 20 years ago — though generally speaking, most women probably didn't boil the bunny rabbit the way Ms. Close's character did in 1987. In the past, less educated women often "married up." In "Working Girl," Melanie Griffith triumphs. Now, marriage has become more one of equals; when more highly educated men marry, it tends to be more highly educated women. Today, Harrison Ford and Sigourney Weaver would live happily ever after.

Ok. It might still be an exercise in trend-making, at least partly. More about that soon. But note the first two paragraphs: a nice correction of the previous piece's breathless focus on just women. A later paragraph in the article repeats the same correction:

According to the census, 55 percent of men are married, down from 69.3 percent in 1960, and 51.5 percent of women are, down from 65.9 percent in 1960.

This correction matters, because these articles appear to be written partly for pushing all sorts of invisible buttons. The initial marriage-is-dying article provoked a lot of concern about selfish women refusing to get married and then dying alone grieved only by their cats, and the assumption in all this was that the women could do this because they no longer need men to earn for them. The uppity woman problem, perhaps. Somehow there are no selfish men or marriage doesn't conflict with selfishness in that gender. Or perhaps I shouldn't try to use too much logic in analyzing all those hidden buttons.

In any case, the present article turns that idea upside down by pointing out that the more educated women are actually more likely to be married. The rest of the story is all about class:

The last 30 years have seen a huge shift in educated women's attitudes about divorce. Mr. Martin, who has written about women and divorce, said that three decades ago, about 30 percent of women who had graduated from college said it should be harder to get a divorce. Now, about 65 percent say so, he said.

But for less educated women and for men, the numbers have not changed; only 40 percent — a minority — say it should be harder to get a divorce.

"The way we used to look at marriage was that if women were highly educated, they had higher earning power, they were more culturally liberal and people might have predicted less marriage among them," Mr. Martin said. "What's becoming more powerful is the idea that economic resources are conducive to stable marriages. Women who have more money or the potential for more money are married to men who have more stable income."

Mmm. Economic resources are conducive to a lot of things. For example, they keep poverty out, they make life's shocks (illness, unemployment) less violent and destructive. Economic resources buffer all sorts storms that might tear apart the fragile bonds of love and affection. Maybe we should try to raise the economic resources of the less educated Americans?

Yet somehow the article doesn't seem to suggest that. What I think it suggests is that the values of the poor or the less educated are somehow wrong. But are they really "wrong" given the circumstances of their lives? In other words, take away the economic security of one of those educated marriages and watch what will happen. Do the "educated values" still work to keep the marriage going? I wonder.