Unmarried America--A Majority of Adults
Bill Long 11/14/06
What do the Numbers Mean?
For the first time since anyone began to keep statistics on the issue, the number of unmarried American adults now exceeds married adults. According to a study conducted by the American Community Survey, and reported by Thomas F. Coleman of "Unmarried America.org" on this site, unmarried Americans now comprise 50.3% of all US adults. Coleman's summary of the survey didn't say whether those numbers reflect the US Census categories, which includes as adult anyone older than 15 years-old, but even if it does not, we still have the among most significant ratio of unmarried to married adults in America since these numbers began to be gathered more than 100 years ago. If you only consider the numbers since 1950, the increase in single living among adults is more dramatic. More than 75% of adult Americans were married in 1950; about 50% of adults are now married. However, when you put this together with a 2005 study done by Cornell University and appearing in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships (22:5, 2005), you have a difficult factor to explain. The Cornell study says that both men and women seem to be happier marital relationships than in singleness. Why is it that fewer and fewer of us are finding marriage, an estate which is supposed to have the highest level of personal well-being, attractive? I would like to advance four reasons for this counterintuitive reality.
1. A Philosophical Reason--The Independent Self
If there is one idea whose time seems to have fully come in America, it is the supremacy of the autonomous self. Though we see ourselves as products of families and are often involved in a complex web of relationships, we tend to stress the autonomy and individuality of our choice as the most cherished principle in life. A quick historical observation will show this has not always been the case, even in recent days. When many American states passed modern abortion statutes in the late 1960s and 1970s, the justification for ending pregnancy before term was the danger to the health of the mother upon the recommendation of a physician. That is, professional judgment was the key to early legal abortion practice. However, once abortion was legalized throughout the country by the Roe v. Wade decision in Jan. 1973, a different rationale began to develop, a rationale that came to the fore in the 1992 Casey case. Simply put, termination of pregnancy in the early 1990s rested on the philosophy of personal choice, which was rooted deeply in the autonomy of the self. In the space of a generation we have not only "discovered" the right of privacy in the US Constitution but we have rooted our sense of personal identity in our autonomous freedom to choose our future. My contention is that when you stress individual freedom to the max, which certainly is the dominant tone in America today, you do so a the cost of developing a strong philosophy of relationships.
The problem is, if indeed this is a problem, that most of us Americans adopt the philosophy of the autonomous self as that toward which we aspire. There are, of course, certain countervailing tendencies both in our natural makeup (a parenting or mothering instinct) and in our life arrangements (the reality of family), but the siren call of personal autonomy sings in the ear of even the most committed marriage partner at times. Sometimes it suffices if you can just get away for a day or a weekend. Many other times, however, one of the spouses just feels that his/her life is being cramped or trampled by staying in relationsihp. The self must be nurtured, cultivated and honored above all.
Thus, at base, we are left with a sort of inner contradition in our lives. On the one hand, we tell people who conduct studies (like the Cornell study) that we are happiest when in relationship but, on the other hand, we flee committed relationships. We live bifurcated lives, longing for one thing and living something different and don't quite know how to honor our inclination for individuality and our longing for conenction. Autonomy, in general, wins out. Hence, we are single, and growing more and more single, each year.
2. Women in America--the Overachievers
It not only takes two to tango, but it takes two people, of different gender (at least now and in almost all jurisdictions) to establish a marriage relationship in America. Traditionally it was the woman who was the nurturer and the one who "cared for" the relationship--i.e., did those little things that enabled it to continue, strengthen and last through the inevitable difficult times. But the realities of women's lives are much different than they were even 20 years ago. Recent newspaper articles confirm what those of us in higher education have observed for quite some time: that girls are "on fire" when it comes to following instructions, getting the better grades, working harder and achieving more academic honors than the guys. Why? Well, I think girls/women have bought into the notion that you succeed best if you learn the rules of engagement and follow them very closely. The "rules" of law school, for example, stress the importance of class rank, of having a diverse experience in school, of getting a good job after your first year in school, of making law review, of being a supportive and deferential employee.
But it doesn't just stop in law school. As a matter of fact, this rule-following and even perfectionist tendency of women continues into the professional realm. Let me continue this thought in the next essay.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long