A More Conservative Case for How to Get More Americans to Marry

As of 2021, around 25 percent of 40-year-old Americans are not married — the highest percentage ever recorded. While divorce rates have plummeted from their early 1980s high, fewer people are choosing to marry in the first place. Why?

Yes, around two million Americans get married every year (and you probably have the save-the-dates on your refrigerator door to prove it). But a rising number of people aren’t, even people in long-term partnered relationships. They aren’t getting married for any number of reasons, whether that’s distrust of the institution of marriage or the potential loss of access to federal benefits or a belief that marriage just doesn’t fit their needs. But in his new book, “Get Married: Why Americans Must Defy the Elites, Forge Strong Families, and Save Civilization,” the University of Virginia professor Brad Wilcox argues that marriage is more important than ever for individuals and for the country.

I spoke with Mr. Wilcox about getting married, staying married and whether the government should help individuals find partners. This interview has been edited for length and clarity and is part of an Opinion Q. and A. series exploring modern conservatism today, its influence in society and politics and how and why it differs (and doesn’t) from the conservative movement that most Americans thought they knew.

Jane Coaston: Why don’t more people get married now, in your opinion? How did we get to this point where, as you write, we are seeing the “closing of the American heart”?

Brad Wilcox: Part of the story here is the emergence of what I call a Midas mind-set, where too many Americans, too many young adults especially, are either explicitly or implicitly assuming that life is about education, money and especially work. One Pew study found that for Americans in general, 71 percent thought having a job or career they enjoy is the path toward fulfillment, and getting married was the path for only 23 percent. We’ve also seen the falling fortunes of men, especially men who don’t have college degrees. They’re much less connected to the work force and they’re less attractive for that reason in part.

About one in four men in their prime, 25 to 54, are not working, and those men are less likely to get married in the first place and more likely to get divorced if they do marry. We could talk about how the rise of expressive individualism since the late ’60s and early ’70s has kind of changed what Americans expect from love and marriage and made them less formalistic in their orientation. Finally, there’s growing secularization and the ways in which public policies often end up penalizing marriage today, particularly among the working class. So it’s a perfect storm of cultural policy and economic developments that have made marriage less important for some and less accessible for others. And that’s why we’re seeing fewer and fewer Americans opening their hearts to marriage today.

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