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Australia’s marriage gap

It is not middle-class women who are ending up on the shelf but their less educated sisters.
Angela Shanahan | 26 April 2008
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It is a truism of modern life that no smart girl who cares about her education and career puts getting married near the top of life's priorities. The world has changed. Who wants to be Bridezilla? Aren't well-educated women rejecting marriage and instead having thrilling serial sexual relationships until they are ready to go into motherhood alone, or with a vaguely titled partner, cleverly juggling the office, the kindy and the Nigella cookbook? Marriage, particularly early marriage, is for those fecund, family-oriented types who didn't make it into college or university, but it is only one option available to the educated independent woman.

In short, well-educated women don't need marriage. Or do they?

Well, that is the truism. Now the truth. The truth is that marriage is in a steady, slow decline in Australia, although not because of divorce -- the past two censuses reveal the divorce rate has stabilised markedly -- but because of a gradual acceptance of and consequential rise in de facto partnerships for all people of marriageable age.

The story gets even more catastrophic if you look at the other part of the marriage equation: the men.

Contrary to the Sex and the City fable, however, it is not the well-educated women asserting their independence and chucking marriage who end up on the shelf. They are getting married, eventually, and most of them before they have any children.

For a brief period in Australia, as in other parts of the developed world, the truism for this group seemed true: with the initial influx of girls into tertiary education there was a falling off in marriage among degree-qualified women. But lately, here and in the United States, the trend has slowed and stabilised. These girls often do have a series of unstable relationships during their mid to late 20s, but they pretty soon figure out the way to get it all is to get Mr Right, and they do. Bridezilla lives!

No, the real catastrophe is happening down the other end of the economic and educational spectrum. Once it was the girls without any post-school qualifications who seemed born to marriage and motherhood. They married young and had children. Not any more. Now they are leaving out the marriage part and simply going straight to the children part.

The census data from 2006 analysed recently by Monash University's Genevieve Heard makes it clear that although the low rate of marriage for women in the 25 to 30 age group is about the same for women who have post-school qualification and those who don't, the numbers of degree-qualified women who are married by the time they are 30 to 35 is higher than those without. By about 30, 61 per cent of Australian women with a degree are married, compared with only 53 per cent of women with no post-school qualifications.

This rush into marriage by the educated group is probably driven by the desire to have children before the sub-fertile 30s. At least that message, for which I have had a lot of flak through the years, has been heard. At least by the middle class.

But, on the other side of the coin, an even more worrying trend has emerged with the combination of the increasing number of de facto arrangements and the ex-nuptial birthrate. In Australia, ex-nuptial births are a phenomenon of women in their 20s, and the rate has gone from 17 per cent in 1986 to 33 per cent in 2006. Increasingly, women saddled with children in their 20s find themselves in the never-marry basket, moving from one precarious relationship to another. That is never good for children or their mothers. And we wonder why so many women are on the disability pension.

What is going on? In the US this phenomenon, which has turned the tables on the conventional class-based wisdom about women's marriage expectations, has been evident and growing for about 20 years. It has been dubbed "the marriage gap". It is a worrying trend and a leading indicator of social fragmentation but, curiously, the press report I read about Australia's marriage gap was all about the happy fact our 30-something female graduates are smart enough to realise that marriage and family are the point of life.

But the story was not being told properly. It is as if you told the story about the Titanic going down and instead of talking about the people who were drowned, you talked about only the ones on A deck who got in the life boats and lived happily ever after. Yet the story gets even more catastrophic if you look at the other part of the marriage equation: the men.

Monash University's Bob Birrell has been researching the marriage gap for men. He has stressed the need for marriages to be economically and intellectually collaborative if they are to thrive in a stressful environment that militates against long-term relationships. The less well-educated, poorer men who subsist on casual work in their 20s and are unable to marry even in good times are simply no longer expected by social norms to live up to marriage as an ideal for their families. For many of these men their job as fathers has been conveniently replaced by a feminised social welfare state.

But since the sexual revolution all men, rich and poor, have been discouraged from living up to the ideal of collaborative marriage because social acceptance of cohabitation tends to favour men, who have almost limitless opportunities to procreate, moving from one partner to another. The real losers are the increasingly welfare-dependent "baby mothers" of their children.

Although marriage is under stress, the middle class instinctively knows it has value; they do it. The real national catastrophe is that family-oriented women, who were once the nation's backbone, cannot even dream of the white wedding. Now, that is a dream reserved for their middle-class sisters.

Angela Shanahan is a Canberra newspaper columnist.This article was first published in the Weekend Australian of April 19-20.

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