Is the institution of marriage obsolete?

Is marriage obsolete? According to a new TIME/ Pew Research Center poll, 40% of Americans believe it is.

What we found is that marriage, whatever its social, spiritual or symbolic appeal, is in purely practical terms just not as necessary as it used to be. Neither men nor women need to be married to have sex or companionship or professional success or respect or even children — yet marriage remains revered and desired.

So a sizable percentage of Americans think marriage is an out-of-date institution… and yet want it for themselves anyway. It seems like a contradiction, but the researchers have a theory:

Promising publicly to be someone’s partner for life used to be something people did to lay the foundation of their independent life. It was the demarcation of adulthood. Now it’s more of a finishing touch, the last brick in the edifice, sociologists believe. “Marriage is the capstone for both the college-educated and the less well educated,” says Johns Hopkins’ Cherlin. “The college-educated wait until they’re finished with their education and their careers are launched. The less educated wait until they feel comfortable financially.”

But that comfort keeps getting more elusive. “The loss of decent-paying jobs that a high-school-educated man or woman could get makes it difficult for them to get and stay married,” says Cherlin. As the knowledge economy has overtaken the manufacturing economy, couples in which both partners’ job opportunities are disappearing are doubly disadvantaged. So they wait to get married. But they don’t wait to set up house.

All this might explain why there was a 13% increase in couples living together from 2009 to 2010. Census researchers were so surprised at the jump that they double-checked their data. Eventually they attributed the sharp increase to the recession: these newly formed couples were less likely to have jobs.

Brian Saint-Paul

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Brian Saint-Paul was the editor and publisher of Crisis Magazine. He has a BA in Philosophy and an MA in Religious Studies from the Catholic University of America, in Washington. D.C. In addition to various positions in journalism and publishing, he has served as the associate director of a health research institute, a missionary, and a private school teacher. He lives with his wife in a historic Baltimore neighborhood, where he obsesses over Late Antiquity.

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