The Marrying Kind: How Class Shapes Our Search for a Soul Mate

Cross-posted from New Deal 2.0.

As we celebrated Valentine's Day this week we should be aware that underlying the many stories on the changing nature of marriage and relationships is a central irony: The college-educated middle class that embraced the sexual revolution is now leading the way back into marriage. And this group has more stable families because of the combination of two qualities hard for everyone else to find. The first is a flexible approach to family roles. Men who help with the children and women with six-figure incomes are very much in demand. The second is good jobs: Over the last 30 years, the number of men with stable employment has stayed even with women only at the top. The result is remaking the definition of domestic success.

Sociologists call the new marriage patterns "soul mate" marriage. They observe that Americans used to marry at younger ages (in 1960, the averages were 22 for men and 20 for women) and the young couples fully entered adulthood only after they married. The secrets to making those marriages work were well-defined gender roles and lots of coercion. The couple was likely to have one child immediately and a second not too long afterwards. With two young children, even a desperately unhappy wife would have difficulty leaving a man who brought home a regular paycheck, and he was likely to be readily employed in a job with benefits, promotions, and raises. The two would be embedded in a network of friends, families, and co-workers that revolved around marriage and stigmatized divorce.

Today, a much higher percentage of the population is single and almost 40 percent of Americans believe that marriage is outdated. Yet the vast majority will marry eventually. Before they do, however, they will spend their 20's unmarried, often on their own, experimenting with different relationships and engaged in what may be a decade-long search for the right partner. This generation will grow up before they get married and in the process they will reach more informed and (hopefully) mature decisions on what kind of partner allows them to realize the family life they wish to create. These patterns are more individualistic than the old institutional model, but while they do vary more than the breadwinner/homemaker model of the fifties, it is a mistake to think that they are based only on dewy-eyed romance.

Instead, today's marital partners select for a mate with shared values -- and they are likely to be drawn to partners who can truly share their lives and their successes. The college educated, for example, marry and bear children later than the less educated, while those with less education have become increasingly likely to bear children first. The non-marital birth rate has stayed at two percent for white college graduates over the last 25 years and risen only slightly for college-educated racial minorities. During the same period, the non-marital birth rate has reached 40 percent for the country as a whole. College graduates enter into any kind of family life significantly later than their less-educated peers and have become even more likely to marry only each other.

When they do marry, today's romantic partners seek those who share compatible values and complementary employment. The new elite devotes more parental time to their children than their parents did and the ability to do so requires either one high-earning partner or two wage earners with compatible schedules. In commenting on Obama's plans to increase taxes on those with income above $250,000, a University of Chicago law professor complained that it took he and his wife that much income to raise a family in Chicago in accordance with a professional standard of living. What he emphasized less is that it also took a spouse with a six-figure income to afford the nannies, private schools, and college and graduate education that would allow their children to realize opportunities comparable to their own.

Marriage on these terms cannot work, however, for couples who do not trust their partners or who feel that their partners contribute so little that they threaten the resources necessary to provide for children. For the approximately two-thirds of the population that does not have a college degree, an increasing number of men don't have the steady, adequate-paying jobs that allow them to provide the foundation for a successful family life. Nor are working class men who feel like failures in the job market prepared to play roles backing up their wives and children. College-educated artists or faculty spouses may be willing to dote on their children while their wives take on the "breadwinning" role, but less secure men are more likely to chafe at the domestic tasks. Financially independent women who both earn the bulk of the family income and assume the majority of the domestic tasks don't want -- or need -- men who are unable to support their families, emotionally or financially. While divorce rates plummeted in the '90s for college graduates, they continued to rise among the hard-pressed working class.

The secret underlying these patterns has been the growing divergence in male job opportunities and a change in the gendered wage gap. In 1990, all women, irrespective of education, made about the same percentage of the median hourly wage of the men, with college graduate women making a slightly higher percentage of the male wage than those who did not graduate from college. Today, those figures have changed appreciably. College graduate women are now paid a smaller percentage of the median hourly wage the men earn, while all other women are earning a higher percentage of male income. During the same period, male employment stability, which remained largely unchanged for college graduate men, and improved for most women, became notably worse for working class men.

What these figures mean is that for women who graduate college, there are still lots of choices. Even though women are graduating from college in larger numbers than men, there is still a substantial number of men at the top of the income ladder. Moreover, as the wages of college graduates have stagnated over the last decade, they have done so even more for women than for men. Today's college graduates recognize that they need each other to realize the good life and they are very careful in the search for the right partner.

Women at the losing end of the economic spectrum, however, are increasingly giving up on men and marriage. Men with stable jobs are harder to find and recently laid off or semi-employed men help out less around the house than those who work full time. The mismatch between men and women has had a bigger impact on marriage than the change in values that inspired the sex revolution. It is time to recognize that the best Valentine's Day present out there is a more promising future.