The Agenda

Marriage Rests on the Thin Reed of Its Prestige

Sociologist Andrew Cherlin’s recent op-ed on marriage as a capstone is an excellent summary of his work:

Today, marriage is more discretionary than ever, and also more distinctive. It is something young adults do after they and their live-in partners have good jobs and a nice apartment. It has become the capstone experience of personal life — the last brick put in place after everything else is set. People marry to show their family and friends how well their lives are going, even if deep down they are unsure whether their partnership will last a lifetime.

Consider weddings, which typically were formal ceremonies planned and paid for by the parents. Not anymore: According to the American Wedding Study, commissioned by Brides magazine, 36 percent of couples paid the entire cost of their wedding receptions in 2012, up from 29 percent in 2009; and another 26 percent contributed to the cost. As more couples plan and pay for the occasion, its central meaning is shifting from uniting two families to celebrating the bride and groom themselves.

YOUNG adults with greater earning potential, who can afford the capstone celebration, are still marrying in large numbers, while those with poorer economic prospects are holding off. 

If marriage is a celebration of a successful young adulthood, it is easy to imagine it fading away rather quickly. Consider developments in France, as described in the most recent issue of The Economist:

Under French law, marriage confers firmer rights, particularly over inheritance, than the civil pacts that have long been open to same-sex partners. The irony is that, for heterosexual couples, such pacts are now nearly twice as popular as the increasingly unfashionable institution of marriage.

It could be that America’s embrace of same-sex civil marriage will arrest a larger shift towards “marriage-lite” civil unions. Or it could be that civil unions will be embraced in the U.S. as they have been in France and the Netherlands on the grounds that they are more easily dissolved and less fraught with cultural expectation. All in all, I’d say the prospects for a marriage revival are gloomy. Of course, this could reflect the fact that it is raining today. Perhaps I will revisit this subject when the weather is more agreeable. 

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