Marriage rates have been in decline in most developed countries around the world for the last five decades. Some graphs to illustrate the trend visually:
The decline of marriage correlates strongly with reduced fertility rates as well. What we are seeing throughout the first world is a general reduction in family formation. A greater proportion of adults are single and childless. This is leading to reduced population growth and even shrinking populations in some countries.
There are those who might acknowledge this trend and say, “So what?” The libertarian view is to just be happy people have more freedom to live how they want. If people are voluntarily opting out of marriage and family, who are we to judge?
Before we pat ourselves on the back for being so tolerant, we should acknowledge the consequences of this viewpoint. The idea that adults ought to get married and have children is a very old norm. Whenever a society abandons a norm there are trade-offs.
By abandoning the norm of marriage we end up with fewer children. This ultimately leads to economic crisis, as fewer workers translates to reduced growth and not enough tax revenue to support social welfare systems. Governments may try to mitigate this by taking in immigrants to replace natives who refuse to have children, but this solution too involves a number of trade-offs. A nation may get some cheap workers to bolster the economy. It may also get more economic inequality, the destruction of working class industries, ethnic strife, and eventually cultural dilution and degradation.
In theory the government could drastically cut spending and the wider society could choose not to take in immigrants and instead adjust itself to a reduced population without economic strife. This is extremely difficult but technically possible. The problem is that it is at best a temporary solution. Japan for example will see it’s population reduced by half by the end of the century. Eventually, the society will simply cease to exist. Adjusting to a shrinking population is the equivalent of a society rolling over and dying, but making itself comfortable first. If a civilization seeks to have a future, it eventually has to solve the problem of birthrates and get to a replacement level.
It is possible to increase birthrates without relying on marriage. However this is not an optimal path to go down. We are already seeing illegitimacy rates go up as the norm of marriage is abandoned.
As mentioned in the previous essay, single parenthood correlates with a number of social maladies.
The best way to ensure a prosperous future is to maintain a healthy baseline birthrate. The best environment for these children is a home with their biological mother and father. Marriage is statistically the best way to ensure these environments for children. Healthy marriages create stable families. Stable families create strong and safe communities. Strong communities create prosperous cities. Prosperous cities create successful nations. Successful nations advance humanity.
In the interests of advancing humanity, we will now examine what exactly is causing the decline of marriage. We have identified four key factors.
A number of economic changes have made marriage more difficult over the last few decades. The two most important are the mass entrance of women into the workforce and the slowing down of wage growth for the average worker. These two changes have a partly causal relationship. The former in part led to the latter as more workers increased the supply of potential employees and reduced their value.
Stagnating wages have led to greater income inequality and a new paradigm where two incomes are seen as necessary for a typical middle class family. This has made marriage less attractive given that in many developed countries, a majority of women want to be housewives. Men are finding it harder and harder to be breadwinners. Technology and automation have displaced millions of workers, as well as globalism and competition from foreign workers. The guarantee of lifetime employment is a thing of the past. Women are outperforming men in academics and out-earning men during their most fertile years. Women in general want a male partner that has an equal or higher income than themselves. Taken together these factors make the economy one of the biggest causes for the reduced rate of marriage.
We could spend several essays going over all of the cultural changes that have harmed marriage. In this space we will just give a few highlights from the last few decades.
The first important change was the sexual revolution of the 1960’s. Many wealthy nations stopped condemning fornication — sex outside of marriage. Before this, having sex while not married was seen as inappropriate. The behavior was shunned and shamed aggressively. Once fornication was normalized, promiscuity increased because sex feels good. Sex was one of the things people most looked forward to about marriage. Now that marriage was no longer necessary to get it, fewer people bothered. Promiscuity in women correlates with divorce. Though the relationship isn’t quite linear, studies show consistently that a high partner count leads to a greater chance of divorce and women with zero or 1 premarital sex partners have the lowest chance of divorce. Greater promiscuity among men and women has also led to a surge in STD’s, many of them severely debilitating and leading to infertility.
The sexual revolution precipitated a larger deconstruction of traditional values and sex roles. The feminist movement is no doubt a significant factor here. Women were encouraged to pursue careers instead of marriage, creating a situation where now many women wait until they are older and less fertile to try to find a partner. Men too were affected as the traditionally masculine identities of husband and father became less appealing. In popular culture married men are frequently portrayed as suckers or buffoons. Meanwhile popular fiction also emphasizes female empowerment, eschewing damsel in distress tropes. The basic cultural sentiment many men have internalized is that women do not need them.
Wealthy societies became far more secular during the second half of the 20th century. This led to far less religious pressure to maintain traditional values and sexual morality. Societies became more individualistic, prioritizing freedom and fun over family and social duty. Again, there are trade-offs. Many people likely enjoy a greater sense of personal freedom to experiment sexually and prioritize their own comfort without judgment.
Modern culture tells women that marriage is unsatisfying drudgery and that they should instead seek fulfillment in careers and sexual exploration. It then tells men that husbands and fathers are chumps, and cool respectable guys play the field as long as possible. Taken together it is amazing that so many people still bother to get married and many more still seek it.
Both men and women face risks from getting married. However men perceive a greater legal risk than women. No-fault divorce laws have created a reality where 70% of divorces are initiated by women. Alimony and child support laws make divorce more attractive to women, though women too are increasingly getting hit with spousal support obligations in marriages where the husband stays home. Women also are far more likely to be awarded custody of children, and some states will throw fathers in jail if they get behind on their support payments. Men also worry about biased domestic violence laws that allow a man to be arrested if he calls the police after his wife assaulted him.
Divorce is a billion dollar industry in the United States alone. There is also a large welfare system that makes it easy to replace a partner with government support. The high divorce rate fuels an industry of social services, law firms, and welfare agencies. One could call it the “Divorce Industrial Complex.” It is encouraged by TV shows and movies that glorify divorce by making it seem liberating and sexy. In reality, even with all of the various subsidies, divorce often leads to poverty for women and social dysfunction for children raised by single mothers.
This is not to imply that divorce is always bad. There are cases where it is the best outcome (for example, in homes where there is violence). Yet the risk of divorce remains one of the biggest deterrents for men. We should note that these risks are different in each country. For example in Japan, there is no forced alimony or child support.
The logistical issues that have dampened marriage rates can be considered a subset of the cultural problems discussed above. We separate them out because they are largely problems created by technology. For most of human history finding a marriage partner was relatively simple because most people never traveled more than a few miles from the community in which they were born. There were systems of arranged marriage and courtship that ensured young men and women would be suitably matched and wed. Shorter life expectancy and greater social pressure ensured people married young, often in their teens. This meant that both partners were more fertile.
The situation is quite different today. People in first world countries live longer, travel more, and are generally far more selective about mates. Dating websites and apps like Tinder have created a paradigm whereby individuals now choose from a pool of thousands of potential partners. The greater choice and the greater expectations about how married life is supposed to be have made it harder for people to find a satisfactory partner. Modern casual dating is a historically new thing and it is incredibly inefficient for finding a spouse. People spend years in relationships trying to entice commitment. Often these relationships end in frustration or infidelity as people try to “trade up” for a better partner.
When we consider these big four factors — economy, culture, law, and logistics — the decline of marriage may appear to be an intractable problem. Perhaps it is just an inevitable social consequence of the material success of first world societies. Perhaps the future costs in the form of contracting economies, social unrest, and cultural displacement from shrinking populations, are a worthwhile price for the greater freedom people enjoy being single and living for themselves. Perhaps we need to devise a social system that allows for rearing children more effectively outside of marriage.
These bigger questions are beyond the scope of this writing. The most important fact motivating this essay is simply that the vast majority of adults want to get married and have children. This suggests that the reduction in marriage rates reflects not a conscious choice but rather people running into various obstacles preventing them from finding a partner. We hope to help solve this problem, as a society full of people who want to marry but can’t is bound to struggle.
Trends are not destiny. History is replete with examples of outcomes people thought were absolutely certain that ended up going the other way. Societies can change very quickly. From Iran to China, the world is full of nations that completely revolutionized their societies in just a few years. First world nations can save marriage if they can identify and implement the right solutions. In the next essay in this series we will discuss how to save marriage in developed societies.