If you’re a single woman who enjoys reading political media, the past few weeks might feel eerily evocative of having an elderly relative demand to know when you intend to get married. You are not paranoid. You are, in fact, being hectored from every corner to give up the hope of finding a soul mate or the expectation of financial stability before you make the leap. Instead, you’re told to grab someone and settle down now, with the “before it’s too late” insinuated, though some writers prefer to be blunt. Conservative voices are echoing in unison from the pages of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Slate, USA Today, and The Daily Beast, imploring people—well, women—to give up the excuses about being too young or not ready yet and instead to just get a ring on it as soon as you possibly can.
What’s going on? The escalation can be traced back to a report authored by, among others, influential social conservatives W. Bradford Wilcox, Jason S. Carroll, and Kay Hymowitz, all of whom take issue with the rising average age of marriage in America. The report, titled “Knot Yet: The Benefits and Costs of Delayed Marriage in America,” (PDF full report here) admits that delayed marriage has improved women’s financial status and reduced the divorce rate, but strongly suggests these rewards don’t outweigh the supposed drawbacks. Or the one drawback, anyway: Forty-eight percent of firstborn babies are born out of wedlock. For mothers without a college education, the number rises to 58 percent of first births.
The authors blame this phenomenon--which has become so widespread that the average age of a mother’s first birth (25) is now lower than a woman’s average age at first marriage (26)—on the working class’s growing distaste for the shotgun wedding. “Thus,” they lament, “even when a baby is coming, many young adults see no need to rush to the altar.” Of course, the college-educated set still mostly has their babies within marriage without marrying young, but they do so mainly through a faithful use of birth control. The authors dismiss the possibility that working-class women would show the same enthusiasm for faithful contraception use, even if steps were taken to make sure they had the same access. Why the authors believe marriage will be easier to promote than condoms is left unanswered.
Prior to the publication of this report, Hymowitz and Wilcox built a track record of complaining about young people’s disinterest having in dutiful, boring lives. In the National Review in 2010, Wilcox chastised Americans for embracing a “‘soul mate’ model of marriage” that idealizes an “intense and fulfilling couple-focused relationship.” He instead praised an “institutional” model, which is closer to a business partnership built around raising children. In a piece for The Wall St. Journal, Hymowitz characterized unmarried twentysomethings as “pre-adults.” Single men especially disgust her. She calls them “aging frat boys, maladroit geeks or grubby slackers.” She knows, because goofy comedies have show her the danger of not marrying men off by age 23 to a 20-year-old woman, the way they did it in the mid-20th century.
There have been occasional efforts in the past to revive a discussion about young marriage, but those efforts usually fizzle out immediately. This time, however, young marriage cheerleading has exploded in coverage. The “Knot Yet” report received widespread coverage despite the fact that it doesn’t actually provide evidence that more and younger marriage will make people’s lives better, which Wilcox reluctantly admitted to the Washington Post. (For instance, the relatively low divorce rate for people married in their early 20s is likely because that small group is self-selecting and religious, but if others chose to marry younger, they wouldn't likely have the same outcomes.) Why has encouraging young marriage suddenly become so appealing to conservatives?
Three reasons: The increasing popularity of same-sex marriage, the escalating attacks on reproductive health care access, and rising consciousness of the role class plays in all of this.
Reihan Salam in Reuters and David Blakenhorn in The New York Times both argued that now that conservatives have lost the public argument on same-sex marriage, it’s time to shift focus back to badgering straight people to get married. If you’re going to spend years claiming that marriage isn’t about love but child-rearing, it might be worth acknowledging how many children don’t have married parents as a bit of face-saving rhetoric (and maybe a new source of income for hand-wringing editorials) as anti-gay balderdash becomes harder to pull off in public.
Extolling young marriage also helps smooth over an increasingly uncomfortable contradiction in conservative ideology, the tension between their disapproval of family planning services and their disapproval of single motherhood. The mounting number of regulations drafted to shut down abortion clinics and the escalating attempts to cut off access to low-cost contraception can only increase the number of single women giving birth, after all. Telling young people to prevent pregnancy by abstaining until they’re 26 and 28 (the average age of first marriage for women and men respectively) will get them laughed off the op-ed pages. The only thing left is to champion young marriage as prevention for single motherhood, while eliding the fact that it doesn’t do much for unwanted pregnancy.
Most importantly, the push for young marriage represents conservative attempts to handle the disconcerting realization that class has an outsized impact on reproductive health outcomes. While college-educated people, especially in liberal areas, still tend to marry before having their first kid, that isn’t true for working class women—even though both groups have been delaying the age of marriage.
This is due in large part to the divergent trends in unintended pregnancy rates. Research from the Guttmacher Institute shows that unintended pregnancy rates are plummeting for higher-income women and soaring for lower-income women, because of disparities in reproductive health care and declining economic opportunities for working class people. Unsurprisingly, conservatives who claim to worry about declining marriage rates reject policy ideas that would actually make it easier for working class people to choose marriage, such as strengthening the social safety net, supporting labor, improving health care, raising the minimum wage, and reversing the trend of growing wealth disparities through taxation and investment. The “Knot Yet” report lamely suggests that it would be better if people didn’t get stuck in low-wage jobs, but offers no real suggestions on what it might take to change that.
This is the corner conservatives have boxed themselves into: Unable to support policies that would actually help working class women successfully delay both marriage and motherhood, but embittered about the resulting rise in single motherhood. Without any solutions, they find themselves attracted to an idea offered by right-wing author Charles Murray: College-educated elite should “voice their disapproval of those who defy these norms” and try to sell young people marriage. The authors of “Knot Yet” echo this solution, arguing that society and mass media should do more to encourage people to consider young marriage.
Conservative writers have tried to follow the instructions. David Lapp of The Wall Street Journal extolled the virtues of marrying at 22, saying, “the greatest adventure lies not in knowing oneself as much as in knowing and committing to another person,” as if only young married couples had access to that pleasure. Megan McArdle of The Daily Beast instructed readers not to marry just anyone, but that “you should err on the side of marrying early” if at all possible. Julia Shaw, writing for Slate, even expressed skepticism about waiting for the right person, saying, “You don’t marry someone because he’s your soul mate; he becomes your soul mate because you married him.”
Do these folks really think a sales pitch on the benefits of early marriage, even if it’s backed up with threats of losing out for those who don’t hurry, will convince people to abandon their concerns about leaping into youthful marriages? It’s hard to imagine that anyone could be so naïve. But that doesn’t mean that all this rhetoric about young marriage has no value at all. For politicians looking to avoid difficult conversations about employment opportunities and economic disparities, the rhetoric of youthful marriage is a godsend. Blaming people’s economic woes on their single status shifts blame for our nation’s problems off the shoulders to the people who actually run the country and onto the individuals who supposedly failed to take marriage seriously.
Indeed, Republican politicians found great comfort in singing paeans to marriage in lieu of talking policy solutions during the 2012 campaign season. Rick Santorum’s pat answer to the problem of poverty was to encourage people to marry, saying that one is “guaranteed” to avoid poverty with his two-step program: “Number one, graduate high school. Number two, get married.”
It isn’t true—in fact, not being in poverty makes it easier to marry, not the other way around—but it allowed him to avoid having to offer real policy solutions. Eventual Republican nominee Mitt Romney stole the line, though he softened enough to add “get a job” to the list. Now even New York subway ads are framing marriage as a surefire way to avoid poverty, neglecting to mention that the research this claim is drawing on actually insisted that people need permanent access to full-time jobs to avoid poverty.
So if you’re bewildered by all the sudden escalation of conservatives making pleas for younger marriages, and wondering who is served by all this, there is your answer: Politicians, especially of the more conservative stripe. Blaming economic distress on people’s unwillingness to marry young helps avoid harder conversations about education, health care, and economic policy. All this scolding to marry may not change anyone’s mind about when to head to the altar, but as long as it makes it easier on Republicans running for office, the sudden enthusiasm for young marriage will likely stick around.