Is Marriage Dying or Just Changing?

There has been a general decline in marriage over recent decades. But behind that general decline lies a more interesting story. Marriage is diversifying, with different people tying the knot for very different reasons. But marriage is also dividing, especially along class lines.

To understand these marriage patterns, it is important we try to understand why people get married in the first place. There are perhaps five main reasons to marry: God, money, love, pregnancy, or status:

For some people marriage is simply a religious matter, a covenantal relationship. Marriage is a sacrament, especially in the Christian tradition.

For many more people there’s still an economic element to getting married. (On that note, let me give an early recommendation of Melissa Kearney’s forthcoming book, The Two-Parent Privilege: How Americans Stopped Getting Married and Started Falling Behind.)

There is obviously also companionship and love: you fall in love and want to spend the rest of your life with someone. So, for many there’s primarily a romantic element to marriage.

Another reason for getting married, much less common today than in the past, is because of an unintended pregnancy, the so-called, “shotgun wedding.” There was a sense that if you were bringing a new life into the world, then that should be done within marriage, and that remains true to some extent today.

Marriage is also a signal of status (what Andrew Cherlin calls the “trophy marriage”), and this may be more common today than in the past—being married is a way of signaling success and status within a society.

So there are now a range of reasons, including religion, romance, economics, and status, that might lead people to the marital state. But it is clear that the “standard” model of marriage as breadwinner and childrearer is passing away.

For women, the traditional model of marriage was an economic necessity particularly if she was planning to have children—to be with a man who would be the provider. Obviously, that has changed today. Women account for 40% of sole or primary breadwinners in U.S. households.

For men, marriage was a way to attach himself to children. If he was going to have children, he had to do that with a woman who would raise those children, and so he had to provide for them. So, there was a complementarity inherent in the traditional view of marriage, but which, of course, was founded on a very deep economic inequality between men and women.

That inequality was a driving force of the women’s movement, especially for people like Gloria Steinem, who said the point is to make marriage into a choice rather than a necessity, and to actually free women from the economic bondage of marriage. “Being able to support oneself allows one to choose a marriage out of love and not just economic dependence,” Steinem said in 2004. That inequality and dependence has been successfully shattered by the women’s movement.

Today, the very institution of marriage, which is central to human societies, has been fundamentally transformed. It’s an institution that is now entered into on the basis of egalitarian principles. Women have huge exit power—they are twice as likely as men to file for divorce. As a result, women are no longer stuck in bad marriages, which is a huge achievement for humanity.

But for men, of course, the old role of providing while their wives raise the children has largely gone out of the window, too. Men’s role in marriage and what it means for a man to be “marriageable,” to use a slightly ugly term from social science, is very different now from in the past. When it comes to marriage, women are increasingly looking for something more than just a paycheck.

Today, the very institution of marriage, which is central to human societies, has been fundamentally transformed. It’s an institution that is now entered into on the basis of egalitarian principles.

It’s a bit like the kaleidoscope has been shaken, and the patterns haven’t quite settled yet. You see lesbian and gay couples being able to opt into marriage. Within a couple of years of the Supreme Court decision, we saw almost 3 out of 5 lesbian and gay couples choosing to get married. You also see a big class gap opening up: fewer working-class and lower-income Americans are opting into the institution. What we now have is what my colleague Isabel Sawhill describes as “a new fault line in the American class structure.” No one expected that Americans with the most choice and the most economic power—and especially American women with the most choice and economic power—would be the ones who were continuing to get married and stay married.

There’s been a very slight decline in marriage for those with four-year college degrees, but a really big decline for those with less education. The typical college-educated American woman is almost as likely to get married as her mother was, and if anything, a little bit more likely to stay married.

One of the other big changes has been a significant rise in the age at first marriage, up to around 30. I think about my parents who married at 21, having met at 17, which was pretty common back then. Actually, as late as 1970, most women who went to college in the U.S., which was a minority of course, were married within a year of graduating. That’s a world that’s very difficult to fathom now, as both men and women now enter the labor market, become economically successful, and often establish themselves economically before getting married. Today, you do all that first, then you marry. Marriage has become more like a capstone, to use another of Andrew Cherlin’s descriptions, where marriage is a signal of everything that has led up to the ceremony, rather than the beginning of a journey.

We can no longer tell a single story about marriage in America in the way we could 40 years ago. We need to tell different stories based on class and race and geography. We’ve seen a real divide opening up in marriage in the United States.

Americans, today, are much less likely to see marriage as something that you need to do to be a complete person or have a good life. In fact, fewer than 1 in 5 Americans now believe that it’s essential to be married to have a fulfilling life. That’s a huge cultural change.

The model of marriage that was founded on economic dependency for women is completely obsolete. This is progress. But while we have created models of the family that are more equal and fair, they are often not such stable unions. The challenge we now face is to find ways to create more stability in our family life, without sacrificing the goal of equality. What we should be asking is how do we have strong relationships within which people can raise kids well? Marriage can still play a role here, of course. But there are alternative models, too. With 40% of children being born to unmarried parents, and most of those born to mothers without a college degree, there will need to be.

Because what matters above all is parenting, the way we raise our kids. It is possible to imagine a renewed future for marriage based around egalitarianism between men and women, but a shared commitment to kids. I think that’s for us to create. (That’s an argument I made in my 2014 Atlantic essay, “How to Save Marriage in America.”)

If marriage is to survive, it will be in this new model founded on shared parenting, not as a restoration of the old one based on economic inequality.

(Richard V. Reeves is a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do about It (Brookings Institution Press, 2022. Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Publication: Courtesy: Brookings Institute)

65,000 More Men Than Women Died Of COVID-19 In The US

Men are much more likely to die from COVID-19 than women. This is true globally – where the death rate has been about 50% higher for men. Notably, this gap does not appear to be explained either by differences in the number of confirmed cases or in pre-existing conditions. With the pandemic cutting life expectancy of American men by more than two years, it is important to understand and mitigate risks associated with COVID-19 mortality among men.

Building on earlier work with Tiffany Ford from May 2020, “COVID-19 much more fatal for men, especially taking age into account,” we draw here on updated CDC data to examine the gender mortality gap by age, and over time in the U.S. Our main findings are:

The overall death rate for men is 1.6 times higher than the death rate for women; The gap is widest in the middle of the age distribution, with 184 male deaths for every 100 female deaths.

As death rates have fallen, the gender gap has narrowed slightly

  • The gap is not explained by a higher number of cases among men, or differences in pre-existing conditions
  • In Georgia and Michigan, Black men have the highest death rates, followed by Black women
  • Improving access to care and addressing vaccine hesitancy, especially for Black men, should be a high priority

The gender gap in death rates

Men have had a higher crude death rate than women, as the chart using CDC data from February 2020 to August 2021 shows. By the end of August, over 65,000 more men than women had died from COVID-19 (362,187 male deaths and 296,567 female deaths).

The gender gap is even wider when differences in the male and female age distributions are taken into account, since there are many more older women than men in the population, and age is the biggest risk factor in COVID deaths. In 2021, mortality rates for men and women have dropped sharply, but somewhat faster for men than women, leading to a slight narrowing of the gap over time. More recently, though, death rates for men and women have risen again due to the spread of the Delta variant, with greater increases among men than women.

Middle-aged men are especially vulnerable

The picture varies across the age distribution, however. The gap is largest for those towards the middle of the age distribution. Among those aged 45 to 64, for example, the number of male deaths as of September 15, 2021, was 79,711, almost twice the number of female deaths, at 45,587.

We also calculate the ratio in death rates (male death rate: female death rate) in COVID-19 mortality for specific age groups. For all age groups, we calculate a similar ratio, but age-standardize the death rates. As of September 15, 2021, the overall adjusted male death rate was 1.63 times higher than the overall adjusted female death rate. This means that men make up 62% of all (age-standardized) COVID deaths. Again, the male-female gap is most prominent in those at or just past middle age: among those aged 45-64, there are 184 male deaths for every 100 female deaths.

COVID cases similar for men and women…

One possible explanation for the mortality gap could be that men are more likely to contract COVID-19. But while it is difficult to assess case counts due to access and demand for testing, raw data on the number of cases by age and sex from the CDC suggest very similar levels for men and women (note that the age brackets are not exactly the same as shown above, because of the way CDC data is presented).

In fact, women have slightly higher case numbers, possibly because they may make up a greater share of riskier jobs that are high-contact and inflexible, such as healthcare support, personal care and services, and food preparation (although it is important to acknowledge that men make up a greater share of those in high-risk jobs like meatpacking). Likewise, these industries might require more routine testing, leading to an over-reporting in mild/asymptomatic cases. On the other hand, men might be less likely to test for asymptomatic cases, leading to less reported cases overall. Correcting for these measurement issues would give a more accurate cmparison of COVID-19 cases by sex.

…and pre-existing conditions do not explain the gap

Another possible explanation for the mortality gap is a higher rate of pre-existing conditions among men that make them more vulnerable to the virus. Again, some evidence suggests that this is not a major factor. One study of an Illinois hospital system by Joanne Michelle Gomez and co-authors, published in the Journal of Women’s Health, concluded that “male sex was independently associated with death, hospitalization, ICU admissions, and need for vasopressors or endotracheal intubation, after correction for important covariates.”

Another review of risk factors for hospitalization finds that men and women have similar rates of conditions associated with greater vulnerability, although there are some differences in specific conditions. For instance, “obesity, chronic kidney disease and hypertension were associated with higher rates of ICU admission among men, whereas obesity and heart failure were associated with higher rates of ICU admission among women.” These sex-specific differences make it important to better understand the relationship between sex, risk factors, and COVID-19 mortality, especially for different age cohorts and racial groups. As we discuss below, biological differences by sex are not the same across race, and there are additional factors at play that drive differences in death rates among women.

The gender gap has changed over the pandemic

The mortality gap has somewhat narrowed for some age groups since the start of 2021. Figure 5 shows that the death rate ratio for middle-aged adults was around 1.8 prior to February 2021. More recently, this ratio has leveled around 1.5, representing a decline of around 17 percent.

Black men fare worst of all

There are of course other gaps in vulnerability to COVID-19, especially by race. Our previous study from the earlier stages of the pandemic “Race gaps in COVID-19 deaths are even bigger than they appear” showed for example that among middle-aged adults, Black and Hispanic or Latino death rates are six times higher than those for white people.

This means that while there is a gap between men and women within racial groups, race is often a bigger factor. Tamara Rushovich and her colleagues, drawing on data from Georgia and Michigan, find that while Black men have the highest COVID mortality rates – six times higher than for white men – the next most vulnerable group is Black women. They also find that the sex gap varies by race, especially in Michigan, where, as they report, “the mortality rate for Black men is 170% times the rate for Black women, which is significantly higher than the equivalent ratio among white individuals: the rate is only 130% higher for white men compared to white women.”

Interestingly, the authors also point out that the COVID mortality gap between Black women and white women is significantly greater than the gap between white men and white women. This suggests that the biological sex differences in mortality cannot be treated as constant across all racial groups.

Rushovich and her co-authors also do not put much weight on “individual behaviors and beliefs” to explain the race or sex gaps in mortality (or indeed sex gaps within race), pointing instead to “structural factors including occupation and access to healthcare.” This seems right, but it is nonetheless important to understand potential behavioral reasons behind the disparate death rates, especially as it relates to the decision to get vaccinated.

Get men (especially Black men) vaccinated

The gender gap in COVID-19 mortality is the result of a combination of factors, which may differ by race, class, geography and other variables. This is a stark reminder of the need for disaggregated health data to inform an intersectional approach to analysis. Gaining a better understanding of biological differences, case counts, and risk factors will be an ongoing task for scientific researchers.

More immediately, an urgent public health priority is to encourage and incentivize those most vulnerable to the virus to get vaccinated. Both race and gender matter here. As of September 21, 2021, Black Americans were six percentage points less likely than white Americans to have had at least one vaccine dose (41% compared to 35%). The racial disparity in vaccination rates is likely due to a combination of persistent barriers to access and structural inequities, which not only includes geographical access, but also logistics, methods of communication, timing, and registration.

Many cities such as Philadelphia have facilitated better access to their underserved Black communities by partnering with community churches, opening alternative vaccination facilities such as local pharmacies, and using more direct methods of communication rather than with emails and Web portals. But while this has worked to some extent, there remain considerable gaps in vaccination take-up by race. Even among health care workers who had early and constant access to vaccines, Black workers were almost five times more likely than white workers to be hesitant about getting vaccinated. Our colleagues Sarah Reber and Cyrus Kosar also find that Black nursing home residents are likely to be in high-risk facilities with low vaccination rates, despite being one of the first few groups offered the vaccine.

What this means is that, in addition to improving access for underserved communities, we need additional research on the interventions that can effectively address hesitancy and increase demand for vaccine uptake. The Washington Post reports that “tapping into the communities where people live, drawing on information, outreach and vaccine administrators from those communities” is one good way to overcome hesitancy.

In addition to the racial gaps in vaccine rates, there is a gender gap too: 66% of women have had at least one vaccine dose, compared to 62% of men. Many states are also offering various vaccine incentive schemes – it may be worth seeing which have proven most effective with men. Especially with the spread of the new Delta variant, improving access and addressing vaccine hesitancy among the most vulnerable groups – including men, and especially Black men – must be a high priority for policymakers.

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