A fashionable consensus has formed in the past half-decade, amongst mental health professionals, sociologist and the like, that marriage in the United States has in my lifetime changed in a way which reinforces social stratification. The potent statistic is that between 1975 and 1979, an American with a high school education was 10% more likely to get married and then divorced than someone with a college degree. For the 1990-1994 cohort, that difference had increased to 30% (46 and 16 percent, respectively).

Eli Finkel, a psychology professor, has been one of the more prominent theorists here, with his simple and clear comparison between the purpose of marriage in American society since 1800 and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs making him a compelling and digestible voice. In summary, the primarily agrarian US which predominated until the late 19th century created, drove, and sustained a type and view of marriage primarily concerned with the bottom two layers of Maslow’s pyramid. Namely, to providing basic material needs and physical safety. People tended to have many children, and often to keep their families near where they were born. The overwhelming majority of Americans were farmers, and the overwhelming majority of those who were not worked in some kind of intergenerational direct service business (general store, bar/pub/restaurant). As industrialization became the default in the early 20th century (America became majority urban right around the end of World War I), marriage shifted to what Finkel calls companionate marrriage. People had somewhat fewer children, often in an urban center apart from their parents. With less urgent and concrete economic imperatives places on family labor, marriage transitioned to being primarily about what Maslow calls love and belonging.

Perhaps counterintuitively, Americans seeking companionate marriage married on average several years younger than their farmer grandparents. At least, men did. This trend sustained itself through to the 1950s, when age of (first) marriage for both US men and women bottomed out.  This age has steadily increased since, from 22 to 30 for men, and 20 to 28 for women.  Extending Finkel’s comparison, this has been evidence of the ascendance of the self-expressive marriage, in which Maslow’s needs for esteem and self-actualization is paramount.

Maslow famously predicted that around 2% of the general population would ever reach the top of his pyramid, which is not to say that these people would achieve self-actualization (which he did not conceptualize as a static state), but that few people would ever have the resources and wherewithall, in other words the luxury, of meeting their basic and secondary needs so thoroughly and consistently that self actualization would be an option.  And when speaking about marriage this is exactly the point; lower order needs are both contingent on cultural context, and something profoundly outside the sphere of the individual to influence.  And this in turn has been the subject of much recent intellectual hand-wringing (1); concerning the ways in which social expectations for marriage (reified in the media, among other places) has combined with the steady erosion of social supports since the 1950s to make the self-expressive, self-actualizing marriage something only frequently accessible to those whose upbringing has provided them, not necessarily with abundant financial resources, but with the trappings generally associated with them.

My generation is now, it is clear, destined to fall short of the previous couple in all significant financial markers: savings, earnings, home ownership.  What is not yet clear is how this will in turn influence the second order social effects of affluence and privilege.  Psychology is only just beginning to understand well enough to express how deep and long family history reaches into the present.  Not just trauma, but plain stress and unrest on the part of ones grandparents seems to have potentially compelling influence on a range of health outcomes and predispositions.  The growing class split in divorce rates is not simply attributable to less financial and family resources available to the generation in question, it is perhaps definitively influenced by how the cloudy confluence of upbringing and genetics has predisposed one to be able to (for instance) weather the various family crises which life makes inevitable, and which in turn fewer financial options make more common.  All of which thus, in turn, shows how the recent ark of history has reinforced and exaggerated social stratification.

Can the more ephemeral aspects of family and relational resilience be decoupled from economic destiny?  And can self-actualization, which can be rephrased as a less materially contingent form of happiness, be expanded and reimagined as something equally durable but less explicitly white and bourgeois?  It is easy for me, as someone rather close in life type and situation to Maslow himself, to read his description of self-actualization and find the overall idea rather friendly.  Assuming the same of too many others, in a 21st century America in the process of firmly moving beyond the melting pot, seems problematic at best.

Brooks argues, in the article cited below, that federal policy which has attempted to reinforce and prop up marriage has failed.  His critique of both political poles is scathing (2), and the answers, which Brooks largely punts on, are for an America still stuck in the last vestige of Reaganism profoundly uncomfortable: universal child care, obligatory and incentivized parental/caregiver leave, wealth taxation, a broad shift from moralistic to instrumentalist social policy, accompanied (paradoxically) by a broad moral shift in how individual worth is externally accounted for.  If as Maslow wrote in one of his late works the goal of identity is to transcend and thus erase itself, it is no wonder that American culture, still after 250 years grounded in the pioneer practical, will find such a thing hard to assimilate.


1: David Brooks’ recent tsunami of statistics in The Atlantic may not support all his conclusions, but is an admirable amalgamation of data:  “In 1970, the family structures of the rich and poor did not differ that greatly. Now there is a chasm between them. As of 2005, 85 percent of children born to upper-middle-class families were living with both biological parents when the mom was 40. Among working-class families, only 30 percent were…..if you are born into poverty and raised by your married parents, you have an 80 percent chance of climbing out of it. If you are born into poverty and raised by an unmarried mother, you have a 50 percent chance of remaining stuck.”

2:  Brooks; “…while social conservatives have a philosophy of family life they can’t operationalize, because it no longer is relevant, progressives have no philosophy of family life at all, because they don’t want to seem judgmental.”