In short, a full explanation cannot look at the family in isolation from economic forces. Any attempt to respond to family change must include reconstruction of the script for the college educated, prompting investment in careers and marriages that can withstand the stresses of career changes, children’s illness, and geographic mobility.
At the top, increasing disparities among men and among women have made both pickier about potential mates and wary of early commitments that might limit future opportunities. Women used to “shop around” for successful men. Male executives used to marry their secretaries, who would take care of them at home the way they did in the office. Now both look for mates who reflect (and enhance) their own expectations about the ability to enjoy the good life. Two substantial incomes rather than one make the difference between the home overlooking the golf course and the modest tract house in the less tony school district, and even if money is not at issue, the stay-at-home spouse with the Ph.D. possesses much more social status than does a high school graduate playing the same domestic role.
College graduates still largely forge lasting relationships and they typically will do so with one another, but they hedge their bets by delaying marriage and childbearing until they have a better idea of where they (and the partners to whom they commit) are likely to end up—concentrating elite advantage in the process as overwhelming numbers of them raise their children in financially secure, two-parent families.
These economic changes, which have increased the dominance of high-income men at the top, marginalized a large number of men at the bottom, and reduced the number of men in the middle, have unsettled the foundations of family life. To be sure, the family does not change with the stock market ticker or the seasonal adjustments in the unemployment rate. Instead, shifts in the economy change the way men and women match up, and, over time, they alter young people’s expectations about each other and about their prospects in newly reconstituted marriage markets. These expectations go to the core of what many see as a shift in values. The ambitious college students, who are said to have mastered the “hookup,” know that attending to their studies pays off in terms of both marriage and career prospects and that too early a commitment to a partner or to childbearing may derail both. Yet, they still largely believe that when they are ready, a suitable partner—male, female, or the product of a sperm bank—will be there for them.
Women who do not graduate from college are more likely to see childbearing as the event that will most give meaning to their lives, and they are more likely to respond to experiences with unreliable and unfaithful partners by giving up on men and investing in themselves and their children. These differing expectations, treated as the subject of moral failings, women’s liberation, and cultural clashes, are a predictable consequence of the remaking of marriage markets. At the top, there are more successful men seeking to pair with a smaller pool of similarly successful women. In the middle and the bottom, there are more competent and stable women seeking to pair with a shrinking pool of reliable men. What we are watching as the shift in marriage markets rewrites family scripts and increases gender distrust is the re-creation of class—of harder edged boundaries that separate the winners and losers in the new American economy.