The divorce rate in the U.S. is going down, and that’s nice. Divorce is an ugly, tragic business. Who but the Devil wouldn’t want to see less of it?
And, in fact, the divorce rate is going down quite a lot. According to Statista, the divorce rate in 1990 – when my younger brother Bryce was born – was approximately 4.7 per 1,000. By 2020, just thirty years later, the divorce rate in the U.S. dropped to a mere 2.3 per 1,000.
But wait. Just hold the phone a minute. Before you go celebrating, there is an important detail to unpack regarding the statistics here.
The divorce rate is going down because fewer young people are getting married to begin with. And not only are fewer young people in America getting married in the first place. Those young people who are getting married are doing so a fair bit later in life – waiting until they’ve finished getting their education and established themselves in their careers – 29-years old for women and 30-years old for men.
Is this really a win for marriage, then? Have we cracked the code and learned the lessons from our parents generations?
Well, maybe. We have at least learned some lessons. Whether they were the right lessons or not remains to be seen, particularly if many of those giving up on marriage are not similarly giving up on cohabitation.
As it turns out, they are not. In fact, living with an unmarried life partner surpassed living with a spouse as of 2018 according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That is to say, more young people are living with a significant other than are getting married.
For those of you interested in the hard numbers, four years ago they were 9% and 7% respectively for 18 to 24-year-olds unmarried cohabiting versus living together in marriage. Meanwhile, 25 to 34-year-olds looked a lot better at 40.3% and 14.8%.
By contrast, those statistics in 1968 were 81.5% and 0.2% for the 25-34 age group, and 39.2% to 0.1% for 18 to 24-year-olds.
Read that again. And, no, it is not a typo.
In 1968, the percentages of 18-24 and 25-34-years old Americans co-habiting with an unmarried partner were not 10% and 20%. They weren’t even 1% and 2%. They were 0.1% and 0.2% – extremely negligible relatively speaking.
We’re talking one in one-thousand or one in five hundred just fifty years ago compared with roughly 1 in 10 and 3 in 20 young people today.
So, great. Young people are waiting to get married until they finish college and get their professional life off the ground. Whoop-di-do.
Maybe if what we believe is most important for our children is that they receive a good education and a diploma certifying the same, we can shrug and be content. And maybe if what we believe is most important is that our young people are successful in their careers, working satisfying and prestigious jobs they enjoy and are compensated well for we need say no more about it.
But something has happened in the past five decades to radically change our attitudes toward marriage and divorce and cohabitation, and I do not think we should either shrug or be content about it.
He Who Finds a Wife
To my mind, as a Christian, the Scriptures regarding marriage and family are no less relevant given these trends. Perhaps rather all the more they bear mentioning.
“He who finds a wife finds a good thing.” Do we quietly attach an asterisk and tack on an addendum that he who finishes his degree program finds a better thing? Or do we suppose that he who climbs his way up the corporate ladder into a premium salaried position should prefer that to taking a bride?
Apparently so on the macro at least.
But what is it all for anyway? And for the Christian parent advising their young adult children to finish college and establish their career, the moving of goalposts in recent decades is worth pointing out.
By that I mean that the cost of a four-year degree from the typical American college or university has also gone way up in the past fifty years.
Education Data Initiative reports that from 2019-20 the average annual cost of college tuition and fees per year at a public college was $9349, rising to a whopping $32769 for private colleges. Adjusted for inflation, those same numbers in 1969-1970 were $2440 and $10636.
Could there be a connection here? I think so. And were I to speculate, the fact that college students calculating how long it will take them after college to pay those debts off or else what sort of income they will need in order to service their loans invariably will cause many to pause at the thought of marrying before finishing their degree program and establishing themselves in their careers.
But I think another strong possibility is that we have correlation here without causation, and that the cost of tuition has gone up three or four-fold in 50-years for the same reasons the marriage rate among 18 to 34-year-olds has been halved in the same period. Our priorities as a people and culture have shifted dramatically, and not for the better.
Yes, yes. You responsible conservative Christian types out there will point out that we are told more in the Scriptures than just that it is good to find a wife and be married. You will point out that we are told to study to show ourselves approved workmen, and to get knowledge and understanding, and that the man who does not provide for the needs of his own household is worse than an unbeliever.
But to that I will return a two-part question about what is coming next in America when a significant global recession is being predicted due to out-of-control government spending and the printing of money, plus lockdowns and supply chain issues, and when all of the fundamentals of human nature which the Apostle Paul was taking into account when he wrote about marriage are no less applicable to us than they were his audience of Christian brothers and sisters two millennia ago.
It was Paul who openly admitted he would prefer that everyone was content being single like he was. Thereby they could serve the Lord with fewer distractions and more energy. Yet what else did he say?
“But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.”
Yet this is not what we tell our young people. Instead we think like the Progressives and Liberal Christians in one of a couple ways.
For one, we suppose we can make young adult human nature better, or at least other than what it is by God’s design, and we consequently shame young people for not being more self-controlled, even questioning their salvation and whether they really love their significant others if they do not want to wait for years to marry.
Or, if we do not do that, we shrug and make excuses and allowances for our young people falling into temptation and sexual immorality. We define down degeneracy and get with the times. We say that such and such is just how young people are these days.
And while in both cases we might emphasize very convincingly how we do not approve, yet our children are no longer under our authority anymore, we all the while conveniently neglect to mention that it was the elders of our young adults who did so much to create the very conditions which so exasperated and frustrated them and contributed to their being sorely tempted.
The Problem with Young People?
It was the older generations who placed such heavy burdens on these young people to get increasingly cost-prohibitive and worthless higher education before slaving away in loneliness to pay back student loan debts most of them should have never taken on to begin with.
It was also the older generations who elected representatives who drove up both the national debt and inflation to unsustainable levels – and keep on doing so, it should be added. Those same elected representatives and spokespeople and sages contributed to rising costs of tuition even as the courses of study became decreasingly practical and profitable. And for what?
Sadly, the answer all too often has been the prestige and comfort of the older generations who prioritized their own happiness and bragging rights to their friends and associates about the accomplishments of their children over the holistic happiness and well-being – physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and even financial – of those same adult children.
Many conservative parents in America have told their daughters that feminism is bad, all the while not-so-subtly encouraging those same daughters to hedge their bets and get a diploma and career built up, you know, just in case. Maybe their daughters will marry a loser and it won’t work out and they’ll need to work and support themselves and their children after all. And, after all, what kind of troglodyte would be opposed to women getting an education?
Never minding that the student loan payments will keep on being due month after month for years to come when the tuition is at such and such a level, and those same payments will need to either be made by the daughter who finished her degree program and now has a career or else will have to be serviced by her husband if the two have children and elect that what is best for said children is for the wife and mother to stay home to raise and educate them while the future son-in-law works.
What we find therefore is that a young couple who follows these American norms in the first quarter of the 21st century will not just have between $42,544 and $131,076 in student loan debt hanging over them at the close of a 4-year program. They will actually have between $85,088 and $262,152 to pay back between the two of them.
In not a few corners of the United States, that would be enough for the newlywed couple to buy their first home together, even at today’s prices. But now they are on the horns of a dilemma.
Do they hold off on getting married for several years while they work devilishly hard to pay that debt burden down?
Maybe they get married anyways and hold off on having children for several years while they both work full-time with as much overtime as they can manage.
Or do they get married and content themselves to have children come what may, resigning themselves to the newly minted husband and father servicing the student loan debt for the both of them while the young woman stops working?
Or perhaps they have a child or two and take off only the minimum leave required to have the baby and recover physically before hiring daycare to watch their children when they are young, and cart them off to public schools once they get to about five years of age.
For the young Christian couple in America in particular, the perverse trap is that they often face opposition and “godly counsel” in their church and from their parents and pastors in the form of advice and concerns that they should wait and wait and wait on both marriage and having children, or else they sub-contract all of what was formerly in ages past considered marriage and parenting to hirelings.
And if they buck this advice and get married and have children anyway, and struggle, what is their recourse? Both their maturity and even the sincerity of their profession of Christian faith is called into question.
Do they appeal to the Scriptures to stand on principle that it is better to marry than it is to burn with lust, or that children are a blessing from the Lord? Then they are told that this is surely not what the Apostle Paul or any other Biblical author meant, even if we can’t quite account for why.
But if they get married and have children anyway, throwing in the towel on college or career in the interest of family, we say they are being irresponsible and ungodly in that direction. Or else we shake our heads and pity them because they will have a long, hard row to hoe. And all the while what is conveniently neglected is that the earth for them has been sown with salt, with heavy rocks sprinkled in for good measure.
But if they let go all of the above here and focus on their education and career and dating around, some say they are being impatient and carnal. And if they get carried away and overly physical, or even live together for lack of a blessing and acceptance of any inclination to marriage, we pray for them “Be warmed and filled,” or some such.
Dare I say it, perhaps we should not be so quick to question their spiritual maturity and godliness and wisdom. Instead, if we were to judge with less partiality and less by appearances we might have to concede that it was their guides and counselors who swallowed up the course of their paths and misled them, forbidding them to marriage and strongly discouraging them from having children, et cetera.
And this is why we got married.
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