Improved labor market key to future of marriage

JHU sociologist examines decline in stable family units in U.S.

Do the unmarried poor have bad values or bad jobs?

That question is posed in the Bloomberg headline for an opinion article written by Andrew J. Cherlin, a professor of sociology and public policy at Johns Hopkins, about the decline of stable, healthy, long-lasting relationships among U.S. couples.

Cherlin isn't speaking specifically about marriage, though he acknowledges that marriage is the way most American families maintain stable bonds. And he notes an important class disparity in marriage trends—college-educated Americans are more likely to marry and less likely to divorce, while less-educated young adults are hesitant to marry.

Why? Some might argue that a decline in values is to blame, that our culture has become more sexually permissive and individuals are less committed and disciplined. But Cherlin contends that there are economic factors at work, that the availability of good jobs for the less-educated is fueling an erosion of stable family units.

College-educated Americans have benefited from the trends in the U.S. economy over the past few decades. They can get jobs designing and marketing clothes, electronics and toys that are now made overseas. They become the managers who hire call-center workers in India to explain our phone bills to us.

Meanwhile, less-educated young adults, who can no longer manufacture those goods or answer those calls, are hesitant to marry. Instead, they are increasingly having children in brittle cohabiting relationships.

Is it just a coincidence that the winners in our globalized and automated economy are turning toward marriage while the losers are turning away? If not, then marriage and childbearing patterns have become one more manifestation of the growing economic inequality in American society.

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