What is marriage for?
This may seem like an odd question to ask. But an institution is a manifestation of an idea (at least according to Samuel Taylor Coleridge). Understanding the idea that animates the institution of marriage today is an important step towards identifying the complex marital trends of 21st-century societies.
In particular, we should look to the people who are still getting and (largely) staying married. They turn out, disproportionately, to be the most affluent and most educated. It is a striking fact that arguably the most economically powerful group of women in human history—female American college graduates—are the ones who are most likely to get and stay married.
These women do not need to get married for sex; the average American woman now has a decade of sexual activity before her first marriage at the age of 27. They do not need to get married for economic survival; their own earning potential is high enough to do without a husband if necessary. They do not need to get married for status; unmarried women can ascend the heights of the occupational and social ladder. They do not even need to get married to have children, given the sharp reduction in the stigma attached to non-marital births. The Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinoski once described marriage as a means of tying a man to a woman and their children. Nowadays, women don’t need to be tied to a man.
The revolutionary implications of these changes are great. The economic independence of women, a critical battle-cry of the feminist movement, has in large part been achieved. Women with money don’t need men in the way that their mothers may have. (One intriguing study of winners in the Florida state lottery found that single women who won more than $25,000 were less likely to get married in the next three years than those who won less than $1,000.)
Very often, we ask why people are opting out of marriage, either by not marrying or by not investing sufficiently in their marriage to make it last. Given the wide class gaps in marriage trends, it might be more instructive to ask the opposite question: why are so many powerful, educated, independent women still opting for marriage?
My answer, in one word, is childrearing. Educated parents are highly motivated to give their children the best chance in life. They know because they read a lot that—other things being equal—children raised within stable families do better in life. Having two parents means that the responsibilities of caring and earning can be shared more easily. It doesn’t make much sense, given the rise in the economic power, to think of a single “Head of Household” (even though government surveys still do). As it turns out, two heads are better than one. As Ashley McGuire writes on these pages, “married couples today typically share responsibility for earning money, keeping up their home, and raising their children.”
Childrearing has always been one of the ideas behind the marital institution. But today it is the principal one.
Marriage is no longer principally an economic institution, but almost exclusively a social one—centered on a commitment to having and raising children together. Of course, childrearing has always been one of the ideas behind the marital institution. But today it is the principal one.
Marriage is becoming, in the words of Shelly Lundberg and Robert Pollak, a "co-parenting contract" or "commitment device" for raising children. As they put it:
The practical significance of marriage as a contract that supports the traditional gendered division of labor has certainly decreased... for college-educated men and women, marriage retains its practical significance as a commitment device that supports high levels of parental investment in children.
It is true, as McGuire points out, that men and women still divide the earning and caring along gendered rather than symmetrical lines, with dads doing roughly two-thirds of the earning, and moms two-thirds of the caring. But the symmetry lies in the power relationship rather than the specific tasks undertaken by each parent. The women in these relationships are choosing their role, not having it forced upon them by economic circumstances. And that role is not about keeping house; it is about raising kids. Work by economist Jane Leber Herr finds that new mothers with college degrees stay out of the labor market longer than is “economically rational.” Why? Leber Herr doesn’t know. Nor do I, but I’m willing to speculate. Well-educated mothers want more time with their children because they know it’s good for the child’s development. And they really, really, really care about that.
I’ve called these institutions High Investment Parenting (HIP) marriages, which contrast strongly with both the old-fashioned inegalitarian model, with strong economic dependency on the part of women, and with the romantic, “you complete me” model favored in most Hollywood movies.
Children are the glue of these modern, egalitarian marriages. This may in part explain the rise in “gray divorce,” with rates doubling among the over 50s in the last 25 years, and couples honoring their commitment to raise their children together but then going their separate ways—less “until death us do part,” than “until our last High Schooler departs.”
Parents are right to choose their mate carefully, plan their births, and commit to staying together while they are raising their children. Their children will, other things equal, have a better start in life as a result. Against the predictions of most social commentators, in 2017, marriage still acts as a commitment device to help achieve these goals. Modern marriage is not principally about money, sex, or status. It is about children.
Richard V. Reeves is a senior fellow in Economic Studies and co-director of the Center on Children and Families at The Brookings Institution. He is the author of the new book, Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That's a Problem, and What to Do About It (Brookings Institution Press, June 2017).