Last week I spoke at the World Youth Alliance, a mostly college-educated audience, on our research with working-class young adults. Afterwards, I talked with a young woman who identified with the struggles of the young adults I described to overcome the legacy of divorce.
In my work, I often think in terms of the marriage gap: college-educated folks, about 30 percent of Americans, are achieving relatively stable families, while divorce and unwed childbearing is the norm for everyone else. The working and lower-middle class is who we’ve got to focus on, I say.
But what that focus misses is the reality that the young woman I met was describing: the divorce revolution rocked every level of society. It hasn’t hit the college-educated as hard, but it’s hit them nonetheless, and young adults feel it. Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution finds that whereas about 40 to 50 percent of non-college-educated persons have divorced by age 46, for college-educated people it’s close to 30 percent.
In Maytown, Ohio, where my wife Amber and I have interviewed young adults about their stories of forming relationships and families, family fragmentation is most pronounced in the working-class part of town. But we also interviewed some young adults from the more affluent part of town who came from divorced families. Stories from the two groups have much in common: the resolution to give their children a more store family, a struggle to build trust in the absence of good marriage models, conflicted feelings about marriage, and so on.
So efforts to strengthen the family today are not in the first place about a college-educated elite helping out a struggling working class. It’s about the post-divorce generation—no matter what neighborhood you live in—forging a response to family fragmentation.
What does this mean?
First, we need young adults from fragmented families especially to help us, the post-divorce generation, to name the struggle and the aspiration. The website IBelieveinLove.com, a site by and for young adults, is doing this. For instance, in the article “I’m a Child of Divorce, But I Still Believe in Marriage,” a contributor writes about her loss of trust in dating and marriage after her parents’ divorce. She shares a set of rules that she began following in order to transform the trauma into renewed trust. Those are exactly the kind of stories we all need to hear.
Efforts to strengthen the family aren't about the elite helping the poor. They're about everyone helping each other.
Second, we need opportunities for connection. My wife Amber and I began thinking about this in earnest after we participated in a program at our church called Christ Renews His Parish. It’s a weekend retreat in which a “giving team” of men or women share their life stories to a “receiving team.” The receiving team then goes on to meet in a small group for the next year, sharing their life stories and preparing to serve as the giving team for a future weekend retreat. At the retreat I attended, about 15 professionally successful men bared their souls and shared stories of arriving at their lowest moments—depression, divorce, death of a loved one—and reaching out for help. After a young man shared the tragic story of his parents’ divorce, another young man with divorced parents approached him in tears, thanking him for sharing his story. Those of us on the receiving team felt ourselves so drawn towards these men who were giving themselves to us. We only knew each other for a weekend, but by the end, we all felt like brothers, like we were connected.
As Amber and I wrote recently at First Things, what we in the post-divorce generation need are opportunities for connection like that. Because then we can see that many of us are struggling with the same things, and hoping for the same things. We can move from being strangers to being in solidarity. Suffering can then become, as David Brooks writes, “a fearful gift.”
Finally, having had such an experience of solidarity, we can abandon the cherished individualist idea that “my relationship is my own business.” If I tell my friend that I’m thinking about separating from my wife because I’m unhappy, that’s my friend’s business. If he doesn’t inquire further and ask me what’s happening, and help me to wrestle with the obligations I assumed in marriage, he’s not being compassionate and open-minded; he’s a bystander to an unfolding tragedy that has lifelong ramifications for everyone, my children especially. In that moment, I need my friend to remind me of my best self, of my search for lifelong love and an enduring family.
In the mid- to late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the working-class family experienced the fragmenting effects of the industrial revolution. In response, leaders like Mother Jones helped to forge a solidarity movement that fought for standards that we mostly take for granted today: a ban on child labor, the eight-hour workday, workplace safety.
In the early twenty-first century, all of us, and especially the working class, are experiencing the fragmenting effects of the divorce revolution. For this revolution, we also need solidarity. But we need not repeat the class conflict that has damaged former solidarity movements. Because when it comes to marriage and family, people of all classes feel the same disorienting effects of family fragmentation, and share the same aspirations to write a better story about family and marriage.