Breda O’Brien: Marriage should not just be for the middle classes

If marriage is still an aspiration, the odds should not be stacked against working class

A 2016 Iona Institure report found that unskilled workers are only half as likely as professionals to be married – 66 per cent compared to 32 per cent Photograph: iStock

A 2016 Iona Institure report found that unskilled workers are only half as likely as professionals to be married – 66 per cent compared to 32 per cent Photograph: iStock

 

The Iona Institute, of which I am a patron, has published research based on the 2016 Census, which shows not only that marriage rates are much lower among those in less well-off socio-economic groups but that marital breakdown is much higher.

The report, called Mind the Gap II, is a follow-up to a previous report from 2016, which found that marriage rates also differ greatly by occupational status and social class.

Unskilled workers are more than three times as likely as professional workers to be divorced or separated. The divorce and separation figures are 18.1 per cent and 6.1per cent respectively.

The 2016 report found that unskilled workers are only half as likely as professionals to be married – 66 per cent compared to 32 per cent.

No matter what your income level, marriage still confers benefits, not just on the couple but on their children and on the wider society

There are strong cultural differences, too. Indians have a divorce and separation rate of just 1.9 per cent.

This compares with 17.1 per cent for Britons living here, 21.7 per cent for Lithuanians and 28.1 per cent for Latvians.

Obviously, socio-economic reasons are a large part of why fewer unskilled workers marry and why many of them divorce. The world is not kind to unskilled workers.

Automation is replacing many of their jobs but alternative work is hard to find. In Britain, the Bank of England estimated in 2015 that up to 15 million jobs were at risk due to robots and automation.

Benefits of marriage

It is not just automation that is increasing inequality. It is also likely to deepen because people tend to marry people like themselves, whether that be in terms of education or advantage. 

But no matter what your income level, marriage still confers benefits, not just on the couple but on their children and on the wider society.

Not least because children have a stubborn attachment to being raised by their parents. And that is most likely to happen in a stable, low-conflict marriage.

The marriage gap is not confined to Ireland. In September 2017, a New York Times headline asked: How did marriage become a mark of privilege?

Claire Cain Miller examined the fact that those without a college degree have seen their chances of marriage decline sharply.

Here in Ireland, marriage rates declined after the Great Famine but the numbers of children being born outside marriage did not rise

In the US, as recently as 1990, 51 per cent of poor adults, 57 per cent of working-class adults and 65 per cent of middle- and upper-class adults were married.

By 2017, this had declined to 26 per cent of poor adults, 39 per cent of working-class adults and 56 per cent of middle- and upper-class adults.

Why does it matter?

Well, for one thing, just over half of adolescents in poor and working-class homes live with both their biological parents, compared with 77 per cent in middle- and upper-class homes. This is because of the relative stability of marriage compared to living together, even in a high-divorce culture like the US.

And despite heroic efforts by lone parents, it is much harder to stay out of the poverty trap if you are parenting alone.

The Marriage Foundation in the UK found a similar pattern right across Europe. The marriage gap exists in all twenty European countries that they studied. In socially liberal Scandinavia, 75 per cent of the richest parents are married compared to 30 per cent of the poorer parents.

Mark of privilege?

In Scandinavia, cohabitation is less stable than marriage. For example, in Norway, families formed by cohabitation are about 88 per cent more likely to break up in the 12 years following childbirth than families formed by marriage.

These facts are the subject of extensive research in the US and the UK because those countries tend to recognise the benefits of marriage, perhaps because they have much higher rates of marital breakdown than Ireland – even though divorce in first time marriages is declining in both countries.

In Ireland, we tend not to pay too much attention to the disparities in marriage rates, perhaps because of the desire not to stigmatise those who are not in stable, marital relationships. But Cain Miller’s question is relevant in Ireland, too. How did marriage become a mark of privilege?

Economic issues are only a partial explanation for the marriage gap. There was no equivalent downturn in marriage during the Great Depression in the 1930s in the US, for example.

Here in Ireland, marriage rates declined after the Great Famine but the numbers of children being born outside marriage did not rise.

Culture has a great influence as the statistics for Indian immigrants in Ireland show. Cultures are also affected by government policies.

This State would probably be dismissive even of investigating whether government policies can close the marriage gap. The question is why?

The discussion in the next year is likely to be about making it easier for more people to get out of marriage. Why are we so reluctant to look at ways of helping people access the advantages of marriage in the first place?

If marriage continues to be something to which most people aspire, it is wrong that the odds are stacked against people in lower socio-economic groups.

In a way, it is easy for the middle classes and the privileged to dismiss the benefits of marriage for adults, children and society, because the middle classes are much more likely to experience its benefits in a cycle that repeats over generations.

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