In this age of changing male and female roles, widespread divorce and single parenthood, talk of the decline of marriage has become commonplace.
An analysis from the Pew Research Center showing that a record number of American adults 25 and older have never been married would seem to support the concerns. Census data from 2012 show that 23 percent of men and 17 percent of women never married, up from 17 percent and 12 percent in 2000.
However, a Pew survey in May released as part of the study also shows marriage as an ideal remains alive -- and points to some fascinating trends in men's and women's expectations. For all the talk of feminist revolution and male resistance, it seems that women are in some ways more traditional than men when it comes to marital norms. But this traditionalism is not necessarily good for marriage.
Interestingly, the Pew report disproves the claim by many in the men's rights movement -- and picked up by some conservative media figures -- that growing numbers of American men consciously renounce marriage because, due to feminist influence, the legal and cultural norms of marriage and divorce favor women too much. The only factual basis for this alleged male marriage boycott was a 2012 Pew poll in which fewer young men than women said a successful marriage was one of their most important goals.
The new survey found that, if anything, American men today are the more marriage-minded gender. Among the never-married, 55 percent of men and 50 percent of women said they want to tie the knot someday. (Men in this group are also more likely to believe that society is better off if marriage and children are a top priority for people.) Among single people who have been married before, women are considerably less interested in remarriage: Only 15 percent said they would like to get married again, compared with 29 percent of men -- while 54 percent of the women and 30 percent of the men said they definitely don't want to marry.
Where women are at their most traditional is in what they are looking for in a potential spouse. The overwhelming majority -- 78 percent -- said a steady job was "very important" in a potential spouse, outweighing even "similar ideas about having and raising children" (70 percent). Only 46 percent of never-married men said a steady job was very important in a future marriage partner. Interestingly, equal numbers of women and men -- 28 percent -- said it was very important for a partner to have "at least as much education" as they did.
These findings do not mean that today's women are materialistic gold-diggers; looking for a man with a steady job is not the same as looking for a wealthy man. They do suggest that the man's role as breadwinner is still very important to women contemplating marriage. By contrast, nearly half of unmarried men are sufficiently nontraditional to expect their wives to share in that role.
Ironically, the Pew report also suggests that women's expectations of male breadwinning, combined with economic realities, are a barrier to marriage. For every 100 never-married women ages 25 to 34, there are 91 employed men in that age group.
One might say a steady job is not too high an expectation. But as women make gains in the workplace, women, men and families would all benefit from more openness to men as primary caregivers who may not have regular earnings. Such a shift in attitudes would likely reduce the number of unemployment-related divorces. A 2011 Ohio State University study found a strong link between male unemployment and divorce.
Perhaps the true pioneers are the 22 percent of unmarried women who are willing to give the man without a steady paycheck a chance.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and the website RealClearPolitics.