Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker examine why young adults delay marriage; "second demographic shift" as consequences?

On February 3, on my issues blog, I covered a Washington Times column by Cheryl Wetzstein about a recent book from Oxford University Press by Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker.  Regnerus (his name reminds me of conservative “Regnery Publishing”) is a University of Texas sociology professor, and Uecker is a postdoctoral scholar at the Carolina Population Center at the University of North Carolina.

The book is titled “Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate and Think About Marrying”  (Amazon link).  Despite the conservative-sounding authorial background, it is not a platform for right-wing talk, and in general it echoes the “Red State, Blue State comparisons of a book by Cahn and Carbone that I reviewed Aug. 2, 2010, and devotes a chapter to that concept (and mentions a common source, New Yorker article by Margaret Talbot).  The book is filled with tables (no doubt printed by “SAS”) and discussions of a statistical or almost census nature.

But, no doubt, the central theme has to do with the idea that marriage and family seem reduced in America as a cultural driver, and the book, with considerable preparation, focuses on why young adults put off marriage. There are different variations of thinking according to “Red and Blue” patterns.  But statistics show that marriages entered in ages 23-27 may be the most stable, and consort with the biologically optimal reproductive years. Self-definition, hyperindividualism, the cost of education, and the desire for extended freedom and self expression all contribute to the delay of marriage, but not always the delay in having babies.
In fact, as the authors point out, women may control the “price of sex” and it has become cheaper (like electronics), and heterosexual men are less principled about family than many would like. In fact, men generally want “experience” (I remember that from my own dormitory and Army days) and that fact seems a bit immutable.

In the Red-Blue chapter, the authors discuss the concept of “Second Demographic Shift” (SDL, not SNL (!)) and cast this in terms of the “moral hazard” presented by socialized programs that make families more dependent on “society” and less inclined to view their own children as resources to solve the problems associated with aging.

Early on, the book says it will focus on the heterosexual world, not out of any moral conviction but because it is difficult, in terms of logic, to map the political and social arguments on gay rights back onto arguments about marriage, or more difficult than people think. The issues overlap but are not synonyms.  (I agree.)  But they do return briefly in the Red-Blue chapter, and on p. 210 they write that that Red-state mentality sees gay marriage as “symbolic lunge for their throat, a contest over their identity and the historic centrality of marriage in America and western civilization.”

We should be mindful (as the authors trace), that at one time marriage and parenting were seamlessly integrated into the rest of life, as families (as on the frontier) had to cohere to survive. In earlier times, most people could not "afford" to conceptualize getting married and having kids as an expressive "choice." That has certainly changed, as for many swaths of most middle class life, children become consumers of wealth, not always perceived as the future beyond us.  But concerns over “sustainability” could send the wild pendulum stalking back.

I suspect that so much of the “moral” debate, however related to religion, has a lot to do with maintaining emotional stakes a “family bed” with marital partners as both age “in sickness and in health”.  Men, especially, can be drawn back to fantasy, and to the idea of a younger, nubile partner (a point that George Gilder made so much of in “Men and Marriage” (1986).  Men naturally tend to perceive potential partners at fixed points in the “time arrow” as if looks conveyed permanent moral essence, which we know intellectually to be false (maybe “angels” are excepted, or perhaps the extraterrestrials of “The Event”).  The authors talk about this in terms of “real life” which marriage either creates or ends (my mother used to use that term).

Publication data: ISBN 978-0-19-974328-5, 295 pages, indexed, eight chapters, appendices.

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