This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 13th (it will be out in January 2020), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

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Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Whither Marriage in the Low Fertility Nations?

Low fertility, low mortality, and a largely urban population have spawned an increasingly large set of alternatives to marriage. Judith Treas of UC-Irvine and two colleagues (Jonathan Liu and Zoya Gubernskaya) have just published a paper in the open-source journal Demographic Research that explores these trends in several European and overseas European countries. The paper ostensibly aims to test Andrew Cherlin's hypothesis that we are witnessing the deinstitutionalization of marriage. In fact, it provides a very nice overview of research on the changing behavior of people with respect to marriage and childbearing that goes beyond a simple hypothesis test. Regardless of the findings, it is worth reading on that account alone. However, they do find support from survey data for the idea that people are, as expected, more tolerant of relationships that are not just "traditional" marriage. Indeed, they make the point that what we think of as traditional marriage should perhaps be thought of more properly as an historical anomaly:
As Coontz (1992) observes, what we think of as ‘traditional’ American family life (universal marriage, full-time homemakers) had its heyday only among the white middle-class in the middle of the 20th Century. While cohabitation and non-marital fertility are today taken as proof of deinstitutionalization, we do not talk of marriage as having become more thoroughly institutionalized in the 1950s. The rise and fall of this mid-century American marriage model show the danger of accepting an historical anomaly as proof of a sweeping deinstitutionalization.
Their analysis leads to the following major conclusions:
Analyzing the 11 attitude items for the pooled ISSP samples, we find a change in public opinion toward greater acceptance of all sorts of non-marital arrangements. Over time respondents became more approving of unmarried cohabitation, single parenting, and sex between single people. The deinstitutionalization thesis stands on shakier ground for indicators of attitudes about the nature of marriage and appropriate behavior for married people. On the one hand, declining support for gender specialization was far and away the biggest change away from marital conventions. On the other hand, the public became even more disapproving over time of married people having sex with someone besides the marriage partner. Furthermore, comparing the baseline year with the most recent survey, there was no change in the view that a bad marriage is better than no marriage at all.
To me, the key was the clear acceptance of the empowerment of women as central to the changes taking place in modern relationships. We are almost certainly in a transition period in this regard, as societies sort out a whole new way of viewing the world. Thus, we should not place too much emphasis on the idea that we have reached any new kind of equilibrium. There's more to come, in my opinion. 

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