Part 2 of 3. Link to part 1.
June 2008 – There is an old cliché about young men sowing their “wild oats” before committing themselves to marriage and raising a family.
Like a lot of clichés, however, this one may be more fact than fiction, because it appears that getting married and having children actually does bring about positive changes in a man’s life. Unfortunately, it also appears that fewer and fewer men are bothering to find that out.
Most people have probably heard the steady drip of grim news in the media about the state of marriage and family in America: more people cohabiting, people waiting longer to get married, and the burgeoning divorce culture among others.
But there is also no doubt that disinterested men, specifically, are drifting away from marriage and family. According to a report released by The National Marriage Project of Rutgers University (marriage.rutgers.edu), between 1960 and 2005, the percentage of men age 15 and older who were married had declined from 69% to 55%. And the percentage of older males (age 35 to 44) who were married also declined over that time period, from 88% to 66%.
The project is directed by David Popenoe, Rutgers University professor and author of Life Without Father and War Over the Family, and social critic Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, author of The Divorce Culture and the infamous 1993 Atlantic Monthly article, “Dan Quayle Was Right.”
Although it’s difficult to tease out from the statistics whether or not men are also becoming less interested in children – separation of fathers from their children due to divorce, for example, might skew statistics – Popenoe and Whitehead said adults as a whole appear less interested.
They said studies reveal “that in 1960 the proportion of one’s life spent living with a spouse and children was 62%. … By 1985, however, just 25 years later, the proportion of one’s life spent with spouse and children dropped to 43% – which was the lowest in our history.”
Who needs marriage and kids?
Why has this been happening? One of the most influential scholars in this field is George A. Akerlof, the Koshland Professor of Economics at the University of California at Berkeley and a 2001 Nobel Laureate in economics. His seminal 1998 article on this subject, titled “Men without children,” was published in The Economic Journal. In it Akerlof noted that “marriage customs … changed dramatically” beginning in the 1960s, especially among men.
Driving those changes were factors such as increased use of the birth control pill, legalized abortion, and laws which fast-tracked divorce – in fact, the entire sexual revolution.
“In the new world … of sexual freedom and of easily available abortion, the boyfriends [of pregnant women] feel a reduced responsibility to marry their girlfriends in the event of a pregnancy since, with abortion, the woman no longer has to give birth simply because of a pregnancy,” Akerlof said.
According to Douglas W. Phillips, president of Vision Forum Ministries (www.visionforum.com), a ministry dedicated to generational faithfulness to God’s covenant, the prevailing hyper-individualism permeating American culture is also a prime culprit in the decline of male interest in marriage and family.
“Individualistic cultures breed materialism, the great foe of manly maturity. Materialism is poison to the single man,” he said. “Success is defined by the acquisition of things, rather than obedience and the pursuit of spiritual objectives. Marriage and babies are largely viewed as an encumbrance to personal freedom.”
Getting ‘their act together’
So far this is not a unique perspective concerning the cultural changes that have occurred in America over the last 40 years. For many experts, these changes – as well as economic factors such as fewer jobs and less effective schools, or even political ones such as welfare – have caused social ills like increasing rates of crime, out-of-wedlock births and substance abuse.
But Akerlof provocatively proposed a different account for many of these social pathologies. Specifically, he said, while many explanations for these ills have “focused on the impact of children growing up without fathers,” he examined “the obverse question: What is the impact on society of men neither marrying nor living with children?”
Akerlof contended that when men cease to marry and either do not have children or refuse to take responsibility for those they do have, it negatively affects the men. He said “that men settle down when they get married; if they fail to get married, they fail to settle down.”
Historically, marriage and the expectations associated with it served to transform both husband and wife. Akerlof said there was the expectation “that marriage will redirect the energies of the bride and the groom … and that after the wedding the life of the bride and of the groom will be changed. This can be modeled as a change in utility: with marriage the bride and the groom will have increased commitment toward each other, toward their offspring and, if religious, toward the Lord Himself.”
This transformation changed the married couple because “with marriage, men (and women) take on new identities that change their behavior.”
Phillips believes this settling effect can even influence single men. “The result is that single men who are around babies and family culture become highly motivated to ‘get their act together,’” he said. “They experience positive, holy peer pressure to set aside childish things and to be about the business of men.”
Phillips puts it bluntly: “The simple truth is this: The longer men are away from babies, the more selfish they tend to become.”
Leaving trouble behind
Akerlof’s proposition is that marriage changes men for the better, and his research found a host of benefits: “Married men are more attached to the labor force; they have less substance abuse, they commit less crime, are less likely to become the victims of crime, have better health, and are less accident prone.”
In terms of employment, for example, men who get married seem to become more serious about how they plan on spending their lives. “Marriage involves a commitment,” Akerlof said. “That commitment is perhaps an epiphany upon saying the words ‘I do,’ perhaps a gradual change in experience leading to a penumbra of changes that ultimately result in the formation of human capital.”
As a result, “[M]arried and single men who are not in school are differentiated by five labor market attributes. [Married men] have higher wages, are more likely to be in the labor force, less likely to be unemployed because they had quit their job, have lower unemployment rates, are more likely to be full-time, and are less likely to be part-year workers. In each and every dimension the married men have stronger labor market attachment than the unmarried.”
Obviously, men who were more invested in their families and who spent more time in gainful employment would be a boon to their community. But Akerlof insisted that the corollary was also true: When men resisted marriage, it contributed to many of the social pathologies that afflict American culture.
While it certainly makes sense that marriage would tend to make men more productive citizens, why would it lower their involvement in things like crime?
Akerlof said that failure to marry enabled a man to remain in the male-centered culture he shared with his friends as a youth. “The peer groups that used to be transformed into groups of old friends meeting but not hanging out together, now linger on – with more time to evolve,” he said. And that evolution is often in the wrong direction – toward substance abuse and crime.
Criminologist Mark Warr of the University of Texas at Austin also found that young men who had been involved in crime tended to return to the ranks of the law-abiding after marriage. After studying data relating to the lives of 1,725 young people, Warr found that “marriage contributes to desistance from crime.”
Warr’s explanation for married life’s pacifying effect was the same as Akerlof. He found that “marriage substantially reduces the amount of time available for friends, marking a shift from a peer-oriented to a family-oriented lifestyle.”
And when a man left behind friends who were troublemakers, he tended to leave the trouble behind as well. As a result, a newlywed young man reduces “the opportunities as well as the motivation to engage in crime,” according to Warr.
A vision for the future
For Phillips, however, this is not merely a matter of economics or even social pathology. Marriage and family are two of the instruments God uses to teach men that they are responsible for more than simply themselves. In other words, it changes character.
Thus Phillips lauds single men who love children of family members and spend time with them, and said he believed “[t]hey do this because they have rejected the culture of radical individualism that teaches men to view their lives in isolation of families and Christian community.”
It is thus not an unmanly thing to be interested in being around children, even as a single man. Scripture “reminds us that ‘real men’ acknowledge that the pursuit of a Godly seed is not merely an afterthought,” he said. “It is one of the key reasons delineated by the Creator for marriage.”
This is no less than a vision for the future – of the culture, yes, but also the church. Phillips said: “To this new breed of men, babies are a reminder that we are all heirs to the past and ancestors to the future.”