The Future of Marriage in America

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Text Preview The State of Our Unions
The Social Health of Marriage in America
Essay: The Future of Marriage in America
David Popenoe

© Copyright 2007
In this year’s essay, David Popenoe argues that long-term trends point to the gradual weakening of marriage as the primary social institution of family life. More Americans today are living together, marrying at older ages or not at all, and rearing children in cohabiting or solo parent households. Overall, the U.S. trends are following the far-advanced trends toward nonmarriage in Northwestern European nations, albeit at a slower and more uneven pace. Popenoe attributes the weakening of marriage to a broad cultural shift away from religion and social traditionalism and toward faith in personal independence and tolerance for diverse life styles – otherwise known as "secular individualism." This cultural shift is a central feature of modern societies and therefore unlikely to be reversed. Compared to Europeans, moreover, Americans are more libertarian and thus may be more susceptible to harshly negative consequences of secular individualism on family life. As Popenoe concludes, it will probably require a cultural awakening, perhaps prompted by rational self-interest, to avoid such an outcome. We will have to adopt the view that personal happiness depends on high-trust and lasting relationships and that such relationships require constraints on short-term adult interests in order to foster long-term commitments to children, and thus to the future.  

Barbara Dafoe Whitehead
David Popenoe
Almost a decade ago, in our first annual State of Our Unions Report in 1999, the lead essay was "What’s Happening to Marriage." The picture we painted was hopeful, if not especially optimistic. Marriage, we reported, "is weakening but it is too soon to write its obituary." In this, our ninth annual report to the nation, I want to summarize what has been happening to marriage in recent years and peer into the future. One question in particular is compelling: Is marriage in America headed in the direction of the European nations, where it is an even weaker social institution than in the United States? Or are we, as in other areas of our national life—such as our higher level of religious participation and belief—the great exception to the seemingly entrenched trends of the developed, Western societies? This raises, in turn, another intriguing question: Is America still a single nation in family terms, or are we becoming more divided by region and class? Marriage and Family Trends of the Past Decade

There can be no doubt that the institution of marriage has continued to weaken in recent years. Whereas marriage was once the dominant and single acceptable form of living arrangement for couples and children, it is no longer. Today, there is more "family diversity:" Fewer adults are married, more are divorced or remaining single, and more are living together outside of marriage or living alone. [The most recent data are available in the second half of this report.] Today, more children are born out-of-wedlock (now almost four out of ten), and more are living in stepfamilies, with cohabiting but unmarried adults, or with a single parent. This means that more children each year are not living in families that include their own married, biological parents, which by all available empirical evidence is the gold standard for insuring optimal outcomes in a child’s development. In the late 1990s quite a bit was written about a "marriage and family turnaround," or a reversal of the many family weakening trends. Most negative family trends have slowed appreciably in recent years; they have not continued in the dramatically swift trajectory upward that prevailed in the 1970s and 1980s. Much of this may be due simply to the slowing of social trends as they "mature." The only major family...
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