Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Blue Blazer Time

Digital photographs are marvelous: easy to access and easy to share. They also are easy to lose. They might stay on the cloud forever but that doesn’t mean we can find them. (What was grandma’s password? Have you seen the red flashdrive anywhere?) So, I’m still old fashioned enough to like hardcopies for a physical photo album. Not every single saved digital photo is print-worthy, of course. Not one in ten is. But I print just enough to document various events, the passage of years, and my own progression toward dotage.

I got around to printing a page of pics this morning, which included one of me in a uniform of sorts. (Not coincidentally, though lacking the pocket patch, it was pretty much my prep school uniform of 50 years ago.) It occurs to me that I wear precisely the same blue jacket and red tie both to weddings and to funerals, though I intend no irony or commentary by the practice. The same style, that is: the original jacket, if I still had it, wouldn’t fit. Every year since I was 25 I’ve attended at least one those events – sometimes both. In recent years, life being what it is, funerals have outnumbered the weddings, but in 2015 I attended one of each.

Neither event is really my story to tell, so beyond this unspecific mention of them I won’t. On a strictly actuarial basis, though, it’s good to know the odds for the wedded couple are in their favor. After hovering around 50% during the 1970s-90s, divorce rates in the US in the 21st century have dropped to levels not seen since before World War 2. Why? Apparently, iffier couples are forgoing vows in the first place, so only more secure couples still walk the aisle. (Disclosure: my one and only marriage lasted 3 years, ending in 2001.)

This might be the last wedding I attend in a while (maybe ever), for the hetero marriage rate has gone off a cliff and is still in free fall. The demographics of marriage have shifted too. The median age of first marriage is higher than it ever has been for those who bother at all: the number of lifetime adult singles is the highest on record. Prior to the current century, women with college degrees were the least likely to marry; now they are the most likely. Yet, that stat by itself is misleading. The marriage rate for this group has not gone up; it has gone down. It just hasn’t gone down a lot, whereas for everybody else the rate has collapsed.

For those who seek economic explanations for social trends, the sorry financial state of men at present is a candidate. True enough, men still predominate among CEOs, corporate directorships, and governorships just as they predominate within prisons and halfway houses: more men than women inhabit both tails of the bell curve. CEOs are doing great. But most men are not CEOs, nor are they homeless. The typical male experience is quite different; the middle 80% of men are losing ground. Median male wages peaked 40 years ago in real terms and continue to decline – and not by a small amount. According to Time, men’s wages are down 20% since 1980; moreover, the male labor participation rate is lower than it ever has been. (The current ratio of employed men to employed women is 91:100.) Fewer attend college. Men make up only a third of undergraduates, and women in 2015 earned more degrees at every level up to and including doctorates. In short, modern men are, by and large, lousy prospects, for despite the ongoing increase in female earning power “a secure job” still topped the female list of requirements for a marriage partner according to a 2012 Pew study.

If one is inclined to dismiss economic explanations, however, we can find other factors at work, too. Modern social media have vastly improved communication and understanding among people; the results have not been good. We understand what we hear and we don’t like it. Unexpectedly, the communications revolution has deepened partisanship in all parts of life, including the age-old gender war. It’s hard to say how much this matters:  there always has been much fraternization across battle
Twilight Zone: "Two"
lines and there always will be, but it matters some. Perhaps more important is the retreat from real world (“meatspace”) interactions with other people into virtual ones. It’s common for people to share more with online friends whom they never meet than with those who show up in person. It’s not just marriage as a legal formality that has diminished: twosomes of the informal kind are less common too. Millennials in particular date less and opt to live together less than did Xers and Boomers at their ages. According to Gallup, “Gallup's data reveal that young adults are not simply swapping marriage for living together, but rather staying single longer.” They are “less likely to be making the more serious commitment associated with moving in together – whether in marriage or not.”

Well, I can understand that. There is something to be said for the freedom to crank up one’s stereo at 3 AM (assuming you don’t have thin walls and close neighbors) without having to justify the choice to a housemate. There endless perks to being single, mostly in the form of not having to negotiate every aspect of life. Being single is, in my (long) experience, relaxing.

What about love? OK, if you want to get picky. La Rochefoucauld’s remarks on the subject notwithstanding, I suppose that might be a reason for some folks to turn down the stereo – or at least to use earphones.

Andrews Sisters – Apple Blossom Time (1941)


  1. And now for the good news, or maybe that was the good news. I guess that's all a matter of perspective, and I guess the upshot is if you want to get married and you're ready to commit, do so. If you want to just live with someone with out the paper commitment, you can do that, and if you prefer the single life, there's always that.

    I have a friend that got divorced, and later found a nice lady he's been living with for many years, and evidently they get along great, yet they never went ahead and got married. Maybe they will after he retires, and maybe they won't.

    I figure there's bright spots to both being married or single, and downsides as well. Again it's a matter of perspective, commitment, and whether or not you've found someone that you care to be with. Though for sure, that has changed since our parents went down that aisle.

    1. Bella DePaulo, PhD, has some interesting remarks on the subject. Her best known book is “Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After” in which she points out the flaws in popular articles and studies that purport to show married people are healthier, wealthier, and wiser. To take one example, nearly all such studies include divorced people among the “singles,” but if you exclude them from the studies the health/wealth differences between singles and marrieds disappear. It is divorce which is devastating to health and finances. Since you have to get married to get divorced, she likens this to conducting a drug trial in which you include test subjects who got sick from the drug and had to quit the trial among the control group, and then insisting that the drug-takers are healthier than non-drug-takers even though the only difference between the two groups is to be found among those who took the drug and quit. If you reverse the methodology by comparing always-singles to ever-marrieds (including divorced people among ever-marrieds), the results favor singles.

      Yes, expectations have indeed changed since our parents’ day.

  2. I'd agree. I think singles are stereotyped and stigmatized to some degree. Why are you single? As if everyone was happily married. Or if you are married and have a family you are somehow more stable when compared for a job promotion or even for getting hired. I sometimes got the feeling that even if you were divorced you were slightly favored in the job market over the never married as if never married implied immaturity on some level or some flaw. I'm glad with the shift in everything that's changing, though I think in a lot of blue blood industries it's probably still present.

    1. Bella claims there are over 1000 ways in which the feds overtly discriminate financially against singles: for example, there are survivor benefits from social security for spouses, but singles cannot designate survivor benefits to anyone even though they contribute the same amount to social security in taxes as married people. All this may change, though, now that unmarried adults are in the majority. Politicians soon may pander for their votes, vowing to preserve "traditional singledom" by bribing them with grants of their own tax money.

      As for the "Why are you single?" question, yes I get that a lot, but in truth I don't mind it. It gives me a chance to quote Groucho (and Woody Allen, who borrowed it): "I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member."