With all the talk in the blogosphere today about the reprehensible Forbes article, I thought I’d accentuate the positive for once and send kudos to Newsweek for its balanced and sensible revisiting of the famous 1986 article that contained the choice quote “women over 40 are more likely to be killed by a terrorist than get married”. That piece inspired Susan Faludi to write Backlash and became a symbol of how frequently mainstream press misconstrue academic studies (it also, unfortunately, became canon of the 80s: if you’re not married by 40, the conventional wisdom went, you’re SOL).
So great to see Newsweek revisiting that by examining the original study, looking at new studies, and re-interviewing the participants in the 1986 article. Their conclusions?
- Men and women are more likely to marry after 40 than they ever have been before
- College educated women actually have greater chances of getting married than non-college educated women (they do nicely identify that if marriage becomes a class privilege, it contributes to the rich-poor gap as marriage has many financial, child-rearing, etc. advantages, as all those denied that right by virtue of their sexual orientation would agree)
- Trying to predict future behavior based on past demography when you’re looking at rapidly changing social mores is difficult (before 1980, women really didn’t marry much past 40)
- There are plenty of fulfilling life paths for both men and women that don’t include obsessing over marriage
And finally, Newsweek admits to participating in the “trend-spotting and fearmongering that are too often the stock in trade of both journalists and academics”.
But I have to take umbrage with this:
Statistically, people who marry at much higher-than-average ages don’t have lower odds for divorce. But intuitively, some experts are starting to think that later-in-life marriages may have better chances of survival. “It makes sense—if you’re getting married at a later age … you’ll have gone through a lot of relationships, and you’ll know what you want [and] what you don’t,” says Elizabeth Gregory, director of the women’s studies program at the University of Houston and the author of “The New Later Motherhood,” to be published in 2007.
This is a common technique in mass media using social science: Statistically, this is not true. But we think it is, so we’re going to repeat it anyway. This is just a lazy way of repeating conventional wisdom rather than to bother exploring why it might be incorrect.
But otherwise a nice and balanced look at a social construct that we spend way too much time obsessing over to begin with. A great book on this is Stephanie Coontz’s “Marriage, a History”– she’s excellent at locating difference historically. Before one gets all up in arms about marrying career women, not marrying career women, working outside the home, not working outside the home, housework, day care, “soul mates”, marrying past 40, marrying before 40, domestic partnerships, gay marriage(*), and any other type of problem that can be analyzed, overanalyzed, and polemicized, let’s keep in mind that marriage is a constantly-changing institution that has meant an enormous array of things over the years. (Marrying for love is about a 200 year old concept, for one thing. And engagement rings were invented by the N.W. Ayer advertising agency working for DeBeers in the 1940s).
* Not to de-emphasize the importance of attaining equal marriage rights in the U.S.