Friday, June 30, 2006

Will This Marriage Last? – Read Our New Piece at Time.com

From Ash:

In keeping with the pieces Po and I have been blogging this week, we have a new piece on Time.com. We've taken the issues we've been talking about here and turned the discussion into a sort of wedding-day handicapping guide to the success of a marriage – for that conversation about a couple's future that we all too often find ourselves having in the back of the church during the ceremony.

I think it's worthy and really fun read, if I do say so myself. If you've been following along with the blog, it works as sort of a summary post. But it's also a good email to send to introduce people to these issues as well – especially to those who are leery of marriage because of what they've heard about divorce rates.

Will This Marriage Last? – Religion's Influence On Marriage and Divorce

From Ash:

This is a don't kill the messenger post, but it's true: the family that prays together stays together. But for much different reasons than you might think.

In a previous post, I mentioned the positive impact of religious homogamy on marital stability: interfaith marriages tend to have a higher divorce rate and be less satisfying than religiously-homogamous marriages. (Unless one of the spouses' converts to the other's religion. At which point, their divorce rate is no different than one of with both having always been the same religion.) This is no little issue, since an estimated 40% of Catholics marry outside of their faith and even more Protestants than that will marry either Catholics or those from a Protestant denomination other than their own. But interfaith marriages are just the tip of the iceberg of religion's effect on marital stability.

Studies have repeatedly found that increased religiosity increases marital stability. Those without any religious affiliation have a higher divorce rate than those who are religious, no matter what religion it is we're talking about. Religious affiliation also seems to be a general indicator of increased marital satisfaction.

Early studies focused on comparing divorce rates and marital happiness as between the major U.S. religions – Protestants, Catholic, and Jewish. Subsequent studies then tackled various denominations within Protestantism. These findings, which are still regularly cited, are usually that Jewish and Catholics have the lowest divorce rates (switching back and forth between the two, depending on the study) then Protestants.

Protestant sects vary in their divorce rates. While there are a few studies pointing in the other direction, most studies have found that – are you ready for this? – conservative and fundamentalist Protestants actually have higher rates of divorce than those of other religions – Baptists the highest rate of divorce of all.

And 2001 study even found that born-again Christians have the same divorce rate as those who with no religious affiliation.

While these findings still hold true, more recent scholarship challenges the notion that affiliation with a particular faith is really significant. Instead, this subsequent work has found that it is the way in which a person practices his faith that it is the key.

The real issues are: their ability to discuss their religious faith; the degree to which the spouses participate in religious activities (e.g. church attendance, prayer); and their views on doctrine. It is these, even more than the sect membership, that really influences marital stability and marital satisfaction.

For example, in a study of Christian married couples, sociologists found that couples were more satisfied in their marriages if they both shared the same doctrinal views on religion, participated in religious activities, were able to communicate about religion, and if they didn't have to worry that about their spouse being saved. On the other hand, couples were less satisfied with their marriages, if they didn't agree about religious doctrine, they were worried about their spouses' salvation, and participated in fewer religious activities.

But, bar none, scholars have found that the most important aspect of religion in marriage is religious communication. The ability to discuss one's faith, share one's experiences, and be able to listen to those experiences of a partner.

The communication aspect of religion is so important that these scholars actually decided that Christian interfaith couples were less likely to divorce than those of the same-sect, because these couples were already more willing to have a respectful religious dialogue and expected to have differences that needed to be addressed, while couples from the same denomination may not be as able or willing to have this dialogue.

And sociologists have found that fundamentalist Protestants – those with the highest rate of divorce – have a higher level of church participation but also have lower communication-skills within the marriage.

This also makes earlier findings on religion and marital satisfaction worth a second thought: some studies found that religion increased marital satisfaction by increasing a sense of intimacy. Perhaps this heightened intimacy relates to better religious communication.

An article in this month's issue of Journal of Family Issues added an even-newer wrinkle to the marriage/religion issue. In it, they studied geographic areas that had higher concentrations of populations of a particular religion, to see if living within one's larger religious community had an impact on divorce? It turns out that geographic concentration doesn't effect Jewish marriages, but the answer is most likely "Yes" for Catholics, Mormons and some Protestants. A member living within a concentration of those sharing his faith is less likely to be divorced. But the authors aren't yet ready to say that the community is saving marriages: it could also be that divorced couples would leave these religious-localities when their marriages end.

On the other hand, Protestants living in communities with a higher proportion of members of their denomination have actually have a higher rate of divorce. Again, sociologists can't explain the cause for this factor, but they consider that these Protestants may be recent converts, without a strong religious framework, and/or they return to the significance of religious communication.

To me, I think that the communication aspect is something to really consider. Because this would potentially indicate that communication is more important than commonality, and you have to wonder if this sort of analysis was applied in other studies, if communication could overcome the difficulties posed by other heterogamous aspects of a marriage.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Will This Marriage Last? – Independence Is Revolutionary In A Marriage

From Ash:

As some people begin to take off for a nice long holiday weekend (and I, who will be working, am jealous of all of you), I think it's a good time to consider that Independence Day is not a just a reason for a 3-day sale on jeans, or a day to picnic and play with illegal fireworks.

Instead, I want to talk about independence within a marriage. Because it turns out that our societal independence has a lot to do with our marriages.

But first, let's discuss the other usual way we hear the word independence – in the phrase "financial independence."

Family economics affect family dynamics. The one who brings home the most money usually is the person in the family who is the most powerful and the most autonomous – or, in today's vocabulary, the most independent. The primary breadwinner decides where the family's money goes (which determines what activities, interests, etc. the other family members can pursue). Everyone else has a lesser amount of authority, relative to the amount of money he or she contributes.

Now, as Po wrote yesterday, couples with more money are less likely to divorce. That's absolutely true. A couple with nothing may be more likely to divorce because they don't have any assets to fight over. A couple with a lot may not divorce because of the assets. And it isn't just that upper-middle class couples divorce less than poorer couples; instead, the richer a couple is, the less likely they are split up. The Donald Trumps of the world notwithstanding, wealthier couples are less likely to divorce because they have so much more to lose from a division of assets (pre-nup anyone?). The wealthy couple will have to face a court and legal bills in arguing over how gets the house on the beach. They may have be in the public eye and are loathe to cause a scandal. So they stay married, even if they use their wealth to live comparatively separate existences.

In almost every case, rich or poor, should the couple get divorced, it is the woman who is going to be hurt financially. For a variety of reasons, it’s still true that women make less than men. They usually become the primary custodian of children, so they have lower income and higher expenses than the spouse. (Anecdotally, we hear about huge alimonies and divisions of property favoring the women, the reality is that spousal support is awarded in less than 15% of divorces, and usually then it isn't much money, and limited in time.)

So women have less financial incentive to get divorced. They know it's going to cost them.

Here's where this gets tricky. It's going to sound like a contradiction: While it's true that wealtheir couples divorce less, it's also true that women who contribute a greater proportion of the family income are more likely to divorce. Women who earn nearly as much as their husband, (or more), are likelier to divorce - and that's at any tax bracket.

Now, why is that?

Because these women have the resources to leave.

Financially, they will still probably be worse off after a divorce, but they already have enough money to get by. Or they see the possibility that once they’ve left, they know they can get more resources. For example, if I got married and decided to be a fulltime stay-at-home mom, even if I didn’t have any income at the time, I would still always be aware that I could restart a career as an attorney. I would never feel dependent on a husband’s income. [Note to future divorce attorneys or judges in an asset-dissolution proceeding should such occur: that’s a hypothetical and, in no way, should be seen as representative of my actual views.]

This is not to say that any woman’s income threatens a couple’s marriage. The real factor is the percentage she contributes – how much she makes compared to the husband – that is important. The financial issue here really only comes into play when the woman makes 50% or more of the family’s entire income – no matter what that total income is.

Her income-earning, or even the potential of her earning, thus changes the family dynamics and, along with them, marital stability.

The bottom line is that financial independence can lead can increase her willingness to divorce. If she can decide to leave, financially, then it becomes her independent decision whether or not to stay.

And thus she becomes less dependent on the marriage as a whole.

Which brings me back to the Fourth of July.

In a democratic society, as Jefferson so elegantly wrote, we believe that each individual is created equal and has the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

And while we may disagree about how it plays out in a given instance, on principle, we so agree with Jefferson’s basic premise of equality and individual freedom, that we consider that idea to be at the core of what it means to be an American.

So we live in a democratic society that values, above all else, egalitarianism and individualism. It permeates every aspect of our society. We despise despots, authority figures and weak-minded people who can’t think or fend for themselves. Issues of fair salaries, free speech, freedom from discrimination, belief that all children should be educated, etcera, etcera. It all comes from our two-fold belief in equality and individual autonomy.

We believe in individuality above all else. With one small exception.

Your family.

Once you’re talking about your family, everything you value in society is supposed to be tossed aside.

Suddenly, it’s not your decisions that are important, but those of the family as a whole. Families are patriarchical and hierarchical. A family that is unified and stayed together is lauded. An individual who leaves the family – even when s/he has every reason to do it – is frowned upon and constantly admonished to return to the fold. Your needs should be subjugated to those of your children. If you want your marriage to work, the experts will warn, you need to compromise and expect that you can’t always have your way. You can expect to sacrifice your fulfillment for the sake of your spouse’s, children, siblings, parents. You might regularly silence your opinions to preserve family harmony.

As long as you’re under my roof, you’ll do what I say.
Go to your room.
Go ask your mother.
We’re moving because he got a new job. I don't have a choice.
Wait til your father hears about this.
How could you do that to your grandmother?
I don't really want to go, but it's a family obligation.
Bastard thought his happiness was worth more than his wife's and kids'.
Share your toys with your sister. Or else.
We’re a family, and we stick together.

Most marriage ceremonies seem to have taken the "obey" part out of the "love and honor" marriage vows. But when did that happen, and we think that's just a line-edit? Or is that change symbolic of the fact that marriage is based in a fundamentally different relationship – one of a union of equals – than there was in years past?

In other words, there’s an argument to be made that our concept of family goes against everything we hold dear in our larger society.

Can we really expect to set aside everything we value in society once we cross the threshold of our homes? Of course not.

And we don’t.

The more egalitarian our relationships in society are, the more egalitarian we expect our personal relationships to be.

Considering this, it should come to no surprise when I tell you that, around the globe, democratic societies have higher divorce rates than those with more hierarchical structures. The US has the highest divorce rate, but we're also the oldest continuous democratic tradition. Societies with more stratified, patriarchical cultures have lower divorce rates. To the point that as a formerly-despotic society becomes increasingly democraticized, the divorce rate climbs alongside that larger societal transformation.

I’m not saying that’s right or wrong, but what I am saying is that we need to recognize that there’s an undeniable tension in our society that we do, in fact, too often deny. We have to realize that valuing personal independence means just that. And that there are benefits and losses that we pay for that value.

To those who say the family is the foundation of our society, and that our societal institutions are jeopardizing that cornerstone, Au contraire. It is independence and equality that are supposed to be the foundation of our society.

Given that, we may have to recognize that any societal institution that conflicts with those values – yes, even marriage and families – will inevitably transform.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Will This Marriage Last? - Is Divorce a Cultural Thing?

From Po:

Would you say we have "a culture of divorce"?

Meaning, somehow divorce gets into the culture and then becomes a culturally acceptable decision such that divorce becomes a likelier option from then on?

There's no doubt a lot of truth to it, but it's tempting to see this "culture of divorce" and to miss other factors also driving people apart.

For instance, consider this. Why would it be that in the United States, divorce happens more in the south than in the north, and more in the west than the east?

One theory is cultural. The state to the farthwest west and farthest south is California. Californians practically invented divorce culture with their "no fault" laws. So the culture has spread eastward and northward from there, on the wings of movies and television.

But the sociologists don't see it that way.

Families have continued to move to the south and to the west over the last thirty years. Towards open land and sunshine and retirement centers, away from the rust belt and high energy costs. When a family moves, it often abandons its support network and extended family. That can be lonely. It can cause stress. It can trigger change in a spouse, who finds a new life in a new land. And when the couple verges on breakup, the support network is not there to push the couple back together.

So as the populations of California and Florida and Arizona and Georgia have exploded, the divorce rate has ticked higher.

Q. Is that same factor responsible for why your odds of divorce are higher if you are a city mouse, rather than a country mouse?

People in urban centers get divorced more. It could be cultural - outside the cities, people just might frown more on divorce. And it could also be temptation - there's lots more of it in cities. More random people to run into, more interactions, more chances that one of those people will tempt you away from marriage. But it's also possible that people in cities often live without the same degree of support network. In a city, you could go all day running errands, and never bump into anyone you know by name.

Now lets consider race. Race has both a cultural element and an economic element. The people with the lowest odds of divorce - out of all the factors we've studied - are Asian Americans. A typical Asian couple in America has a 77% chance of being together on their 15th wedding anniversary, and almost all of those will stay married after that. That's a 20% improvement over the average.

A full 32 percentage points behind Asians are African Americans. Now this one is really tricky. Is it cultural, or is it that so many African-Americans have other risk factors - such as living in poverty, being less educated, getting married younger, and being more likely to have had children prior to marriage? One team of sociologists attempted to sift the data and determine whether it was these risk factors, or whether it was cultural. They concluded that these risk factors accounted for no more than half of the increase in divorce. The other half must be something else - i.e., cultural.

But Ashley and I weren't happy with this study. It seemed to control more for the socio than the economic. And one statistic really jumped out at us, from the landmark 2002 study that is every sociologist's baseline. Here it is:
  • 69% - the odds a white woman will still be married to her husband 15 years later, if they earn $50K or more as a family
  • 72% - the odds a black woman will still be married to her husband 15 years later, if they earn $50K or more as a family
In other words, moderately well-off African Americans divorce slightly less than their white counterparts.

Thus, poverty and its posse of stressors must be the main factor behind the appearance that African Americans divorce more.

Lastly, consider home-ownership. Couples that own homes divorce less than couples who rent - even when the statistics are controlled for income. This is true even though homeowning couples aren't any happier with their marriage than couples who rent.

There's two elements to this. First, owning a home is a roadblock to divorce, because houses are complicated to split in two. Often the couple has to sell the house, since neither spouse can buy the other out.

But the second element is the one the sociologists believe really matters. Owning a home means a couple has a neighborhood, and very likely ties to a community. They're more likely to have long-standing friends and a church and a school where they know all the teachers by name. There's a commitment to a place implied in owning a home. There's a permanence to their life that also governs their marriage.

So you could easily look at all this data and make the wrong conclusion: "Marry a homeowning Asian in Maine."

But that's not really the point. If you look at it carefully, you see that income and culture do matter, but your support network probably matters even more. So before you move your family out to Phoenix for a new job and some sunshine, think twice. And if you are a young couple in a big city, don't fail to build a permanent network of friends. Join a community. Get to know people's names. And stick with them.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Will This Marriage Last? - Divorce in Your Past

From Po:

Today I'm going to discuss the odds of divorce when there's already been a divorce in your family history - whether it was your parents that divorced, or whether you've been divorced and are remarried. I'll even bring up the factor of whether your grandparents divorced.

What these three categories have in common is this notion that somehow divorce begets divorce. That once you see it as an option, however painful, it becomes a more likely option later. That there might be something broken in you deep inside, such that sustaining a marriage is harder to pull off. It's a pop-theory that seems to fit the data.

You might have heard the broad strokes: If you were raised in a divorced home, you are more likely to divorce when you grow up. And if your marriage is a second marriage, post-divorce, your second marriage is likelier to end in divorce. It's even true that if your grandparents divorced, your are more likely to get divorced (regardless of whether your parents divorced).

Thus, the theory, that there's something inexplicably dangerous about divorce. I've talked to parents in very unhappy marriages who are afraid that if they divorce, they'll scar their children twice - the divorce will cause them turmoil, and then, when they grow up, their own marriages are then likely to end in divorce.

But when we look closer at the data, the pop theory doesn't fit. There's other explanations going on. Divorce is not contagious.

For example, the bewilderingly curious fact about the impact of a grandparents' divorce. How could that infect the grandkids? Especially if the intervening generation didn't divorce? Well, the sociologists have studied this, and it turns out that the grandparents of today's married couples were born a long, long time ago. Back then, divorce had a far greater financial impact than our era, when mothers have been protected by laws entitling them to equal assets or at least a livable income. When our grandparents divorced, a woman was very likely to end up without any financial support. So she, and her children, were much likelier to be raised in poverty. And poverty perpetuates, so the grandchildren today have higher odds of divorce. It's the lack of money, not the divorce, that trickles down generations.

In the same way, reasonable explanations fit the other data better than this pop theory.

For instance, second marriages are more likely to end in divorce than first marriages. But this is often overstated. For a middle-class family, a second marriage has only 3% increase in the odds of divorce. That's fairly small. And sociologists who've looked at the data a lot longer than I have believe the reason for that 3% higher rate has nothing to do with divorce being "wired" into a person. It's that people on their second marriage have shopped for a spouse in a smaller pond. They've had less choices from which to find a good fit. Second marriages tend to be less homogamous - the couple are not as similar to each other as an average first marriage. This factor alone easily explains the tiny 3% increase in risk.

Now for when your parents have divorced. This is not a small factor. If your parents divorced before you were 17, you have a 14% increase in the chances of divorce.

Let's look within that number, in several ways.

First, this impact is larger on daughters than on sons.

Second, consider the style of communication around that divorce. This really matters.

Before the parents divorced, was their conflict loud and visible to the children? Or was their conflict kept hushed behind closed doors? Of those two styles – called High Conflict and Low Conflict – the Low Conflict dissolution is worse for the children, in terms of their odds of successful future marriage. Those are the kids who, when they grow up, tend to have the divorces.

Kids who grew up in a house filled with yelling before their parents divorce, aren't really divorcing more than those who grew up with two married parents. But those whose parents acted like everything was all right until one night at the dinner table, when they suddenly announced their divorce -- those kids don't trust their relationships. Constantly believing that their worlds may turn upside down at any moment, they're the ones who divorce at a higher rate.

Divorce in a child's life should not be taken out of context. Divorce is just one of many possible stressors on a child. Sociologists have done studies on children who have significant stress events in their childhood, and they all tend to get divorced more often when they grow up. Divorce is not more or less important than these other stressors. We shouldn't treat divorce as significantly more relevant, or as our only focus.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Will This Marriage Last? – The Effect of Kids On Marriage and Divorce

From Ash:

Continuing on with our discussion of factors that contribute to marital stability, or instability as it may be, today, I'm going to look at different aspects of the role children play in their parents' marriage and divorce. I'm going to tackle pre-marital births compared to marital births; raising children; and how even gender of children plays a role in divorce.

(And, to be clear, what I'm not going to address is the role of the parents' marriage and/or divorce on the children – that's too worthy and important topic to be thrown into this post. Po will cover this tomorrow.)

Premarital Births / Marital Births

Put down the shotgun. Sociologists have well-determined that a couple with a child born before their marriage are much more likely to divorce than a couple waits to have a child until they are married.

In fact, the presense of a premarital birth is such a strong predictor of divorce, it seems to be the second thing the sociologists consider, after considering the couple's age (meaning asking if they are a young couple).

Which should come as now surprise when you consider that couples who are likely to have a birth outside of marriage are, among other things, marrying at substantially younger ages; are less educated; and are much less well-off financially.

Since the same demographic risk factors present in most marriages following a premarital birth are also those that increase a couple's divorce-risk, I wondered then, if the premarital birth factor will change as more couples cohabit for longer periods of time, prior to marriage, or even in lieu of marriage. (Particularly when that seems to already being going on more in Europe.)

I also thought that reports like the Fragile Families Study might support that idea. That study determined that a great many unmarried fathers were emotionally involved with the mother of their children (depending on other demographics, as high as 90%), and at the time of the child's birth, most already planned to get married within the year. And a follow-up showed that a lot of them did, in fact, get married.

But then I thought about this in comparison to cohabiting before marriage. As Po explained in his post on cohabiting's influence on marital stability, recent scholarship there seems to indicate that a couple's intention to get married prior to moving in together is what really seems to make the difference.

For a couple who decides to marry after cohabiting, that doesn't help their odds. I think the same is the case here for premarital births. Even if the couple has already decided to marry, prior to the baby's birth, they are still doing so out of a reaction. They are doing it because circumstances push them in that direction.

Therefore, it may be that a planned pre-marital pregnancy might not hurt a couple's chances as much, but my guess is that such a pregnancy would also mean that there's also consideration that the couple will marry and / or they have other factors (education, age, etc.) that also work to diminish their risk of divorce. But I'm really not sure about that.


The Affect of Raising Children on Marital Happiness and Marital Stability

Pre-eminent sociologist Andrew Cherlin (whose work I am a big fan of) did an early groundbreaking study of the effects of children on divorce. In that report, Cherlin and his colleagues determined that the presence of children in a household do, in fact, decrease the couple's likelihood of getting a divorce.

However, Cherlin found that that wasn't related to an increase in the couple's marital happiness. Instead, it was more related to the resources demanded by childrearing – the financial, emotional, and temporal demands involved in parenting. As such, a couple is less likely to divorce when there is a child in the house, but that only remains true when the child is very young – a preschooler. Once the child has grown older, the divorce rate seems to go up. Subsequent studies have found results supporting Cherlin's findings.

Now, why that is exactly, I don't know. It may that as the resource demands of time, etc., to raise an older child lessen as they become more sufficient, that bond is no longer there. It might be that there is more stress in the marriage because it's more expensive and emotionally difficult to raise an older child. It may also be that parents wanted to divorce earlier, but they waited until the child is older before leaving.

Thus, essentially, the presence of children does lower the rate of divorce amongst couples, but only for a finite period of time, and it seems to be because of the new ties to the children. The decrease in divorce does not seem to be borne out of a new emotional bond that strengths the marriage.

Further supporting these reports, study after study shows that a couple's happiness with their marriage decreases once they have children. For years, sociologists had agreed that this was true, but they'd seen a happy-ending that occurred when children would leave the house: then, they thought that the couple's marital happiness would increase. But more recent research has disproven that theory, arguing that a couple's marital happiness takes an initial decline after the honeymoon period, and once they have kids. After that, their happiness in their marriage continues a slow decline, or, at best, stays essentially the same.

And I don't want anyone to think that I'm saying if you want a happy marriage, don't have kids. Because I don't believe that.

Certainly, couples get some new happiness and fulfillment from having children. Of course, they do. (I think my favorite description of parenthood lately was from David Letterman, who described it as something like "unending joy.")

But, on the average, as between the couple themselves, they are less happy with each other, once there are kids in the house. So they're happy about being a parent, and maybe even more fulfilled with their life, but when asked to "rate how happy are you in your marriage," the scores go down.

So I worry about couples who already have problems in their marriage and think that having children is the answer. I'm sorry to say that I haven't seen any support for that idea. Instead, the evidence would seem to point in the opposite direction.

But in case you think it's all bad news, consider that when men share the burden of childrearing and housework, they increase their wives' happiness in the marriage. So the couple can work on preventing that slide. It isn't inevitable.

How Children's Gender Plays A Role In Marital Dissolution

Okay, even if you haven't been perturbed by this post yet, I almost guarantee this next part may cause you to come unglued.

Studies have found that couples with all-female children are slightly more likely to divorce than those with all boys, or a mix of boys and girls. The newest numbers I've seen are that families with all-girls are 2 to 7% more likely to divorce than those with boys.

In the mid-1990s, a team of sociologists determined that a couple with one girl child was 9% more likely to divorce than a couple with a boy: a couple with two-girls was 18% more likely to divorce than a couple with two-boys. A significant journal said it was the most important finding of the decade.

As you can imagine, it's been pretty controversial ever since – although you'd also be how surprised how much people have accepted that data, which shows you how thorough the findings must have been. But it's still a troubling enough an idea that others have tried to find the same results across different nations, and caused the first sociologists to re-run the study seven years later.

Even more recent studies have reconfirmed the divorce-disparity, although at the newer, lower rates.

There are a lot of theories as to why this might be the case. At the time of the original study, the authors suggested that fathers are less involved with raising their girl children than they are with the boys. Therefore, they are less willing to leave the boys. Basically, the fathers' traditional belief in the importance of a male role model, etcera, has actually meant that men were less willing to divorce.

Others have theorized that divorce rate for girl-children families may be because it might be more stressful because they cost more to raise. Still others have proffered that men just prefer the boys' company over the girls. (And that study actually concluded, regretfully, that that seemed to be the reason.)

The original authors' explanation seems to be the best one, but I was still having trouble excepting the premise. Then I found two studies on related themes which pretty much removed my remaining doubt. First, a study of court custody proceedings found that divorced single women are raising more girls than boys, and, if a father desired custody of his children, he was overwhelmingly seeking custody of boy-children. Then, a study of premarital births found that a pregnant woman who finds out in pre-natal screening that she is going to have a baby boy is more likely to be married by the time she has the child, than those women who learned they were pregnant with girls.

Men really do seem to think that a boy needs his father, and that, a girl, well, doesn't. At least, not as much.

The best news here is that when the first sociologists re-ran their early study, while they confirmed that their original findings were correct, but they added that the effects seem to be diminishing over time as fathers become involved in all childrearing activities.

The more fathers are involved in childrearing, the less they seem to see their role simply as teaching their sons how to become men, and they're becoming as attached to the girls as they are to the boys.

And tying this back to other factors, as I said earlier, when men help out more with childrearing, their wives are usually happier in their marriage, so let Mom pitch the baseball to Timmy: you need to take your little girl to ballet class, pronto! You could be saving your marriage!

Friday, June 23, 2006

Will This Marriage Last? - Does Living Together Before Marriage Help the Odds?

From Po:

Today, most couples live together before they marry. We do this for all sorts of mishmashed reasons. You're sleeping in the same bed every night anyway, for instance. Why maintain the cost of two residences? And this living together period is, supposedly, a good way to get the kinks out - sharing closets and bathrooms, learning to communicate when something's bothering you, et cetera. It works like a trial run. If it's not working, you can break up before taking a permanent oath to each other. Many people move in together with no mention or intention of marriage yet; that kind of talk only comes months or years later.

In theory, living together should help the odds, right? It should help prevent some bad marriages from ever occuring - shouldn't it?

Here's the surprising catch: for more than a decade, sociologists have measured that people who have cohabitated before marriage divorce more, not less.

And this wasn't a small difference. In the most famous study, which drew data from a huge number of marriages, people who had cohabited before marriage had only a 49% chance of seeing their 15th wedding anniversary. People who had not cohabited before marriage had a 61% chance of seeing their 15th anniversary. That's a 12% swing! By that measure, it was one of the stronger variables affecting marital stability.

That was back in 2002, and you can imagine how this was seized on by the conservative media: "Living together before marriage leads to divorce!"

Let's call this paradox the Cohabitation Conundrum. If we all assumed living together was beneficial, why were the statistics convincingly showing the opposite?

There was always something fishy about the Cohabitation Conundrum, though. Think of it this way: since the 1970s, cohabitation has been steadily on the rise. Nowadays, most couples do it - almost 80 percent do. And in that time, the divorce rate has actually stabilized, and maybe gone down. It certainly has not gone up.

So what was going on? Well, you might suspect that the authors of that famous 2002 study were religious conservatives who frowned on cohabitating - maybe their study was biased. But let me assure you that is not the case at all. All of the sociologists that Ashley and I quote are even-keeled scholars who only want the truth. We do not invoke biased reports on this blog.

So how to explain it then? Well, in the four years since 2002, sociologists have been slicing and dicing the phenomenon to get a better picture.

Here's some reasons the sociologists had this measured inaccurately for so long:
  1. Poor people tend to cohabitate before marriage more than well-off people. (Moving in together does save rent.) And poor people, because they experience more stressors in their lives, tend to divorce more. So the higher divorce rate among cohabitators may have nothing to do with whether they lived together first.

  2. They aggregated all marriages together, going back a couple decades. People who cohabitated back then, when it was less common, had somewhat different results than people who cohabitate today.

  3. They had asked people too broad a question - "did you cohabitate before marriage?" They did not distinguish between people who had cohabitated only with their eventual spouse, and people who had cohabitated with someone else, not their eventual spouse.

  4. When they further cross-analyzed the data by race, they learned that cohabitation increased the odds of divorce for whites, but not for blacks or hispanics.

  5. They didn't have the chance to ask people, "why did you move in together?" This turned out to be very key.
Those distinctions point directly to the conclusions we can make about cohabitation. But probably the top note is that these subfactors did not reverse the cohabitation conundrum, they just made it go away under certain conditions.

In other words, no study has actually found that cohabitating before marriage helps the odds. Only that under certain conditions, it didn't hurt the odds.

It turns out that couples who moved in together with the full-intent of marrying - maybe they were even engaged - do not divorce more than those who never cohabitated.

But couples who moved in together because it was convenient, or because they felt they needed a trial period - those are the ones who tend to get divorced more often. Why didn't this filter work? Well, many couples who "try it out" do break up before marrying, but many of them also just follow the path of inevitability. They had reservations, but they get acclimated to those, and they believe they can live with it. They pretend, "It won't be a problem." Many couples who get divorced will tell you, "The warning signs were there, I just didn't think it would be a problem." So many of these couples "try it out" and ignore the evidence, if you will. They marry anyway, and somewhere down the road they realize "yup, it's a problem." This could be as mild-mannered as a personality conflict, or as major as alcoholism, or somewhere in between - like sexual compatibility.

Here's a curious gender twist that the odds-makers know:

If the bride has cohabitated with another man, (not her eventual spouse), her odds of divorce go up. But if the groom has not cohabitated with another woman - if he's never shacked up with another gal, other than the bride - his odds of divorce go up. Having nothing to compare his marriage to, he might not realize how good he has it. His expectations are probably too high, and he'll get disappointed sooner when the honeymoon wears off.

Lastly, how long the couple lived together before marriage does not appear to be a factor on whether they divorce. Just doesn't.

I recognize the variety of these variables can be hard to apply to one's own life. It doesn't sort out to simple rules, like "Guys should live with another girl first, but girls shouldn't live with a guy unless he's already proposed." Because these are odds, not direct causes. People choose to cohabitate, and then the sociologists measure the outcome. But cohabitation may not be the catalyst. The choice to cohabit may be indicative of underlying relationship chemistry or commitment tenacity - and that might be what really determines who gets divorced.

So what about not getting married? Some couples don't want to ever marry, but they do want to spend the rest of their lives together. Can you cohabit your way "til death do us part"?

Certainly you can, but if you do so, you've really beaten the odds. No sociologist has been able to isolate just those particular couples, so if you're one of those people, I can't say there's a study focussing just on your ilk. But we do know that cohabitating relationships do not last nearly as long as marriages, on average. Again, this could be because of socioeconomic factors - poorer people cohabitate more and marry less, and their lives have many stressors, so their partnerships won't last as long (on average). It's also true that cohabitating couples are less homogamous than married couples. Ashley taught us that term yesterday, and it means "similar." So for all these reasons, we would expect unmarried couples who live together to break up sooner than married couples (on average). Thus, the numbers are no surprise.

If anything, you could argue that the reason the divorce rate has stabilized is not because Dr. Phil is on our television and the bookstores are filled with books on marriage and we have decided, as a society, to never take divorce lightly. The reason the divorce rate might have stabilized is that people in poverty - who are likelier to divorce - are not getting married as much. They're increasingly choosing to live together, rather than marry, and thus their "break ups" don't appear in the divorce statistics.

Not that Dr. Phil and all those books haven't been helpful.

Next up: Does Having Kids Help or Hurt the Odds? And if so, how many kids? And does their gender matter?

Will This Marriage Last? – Opposites Attract, But Do They Stay Married?

From Ash:

In yesterday's post on age at first marriage, I briefly touched on how age affects partner choice - how exposure to a larger – or smaller – pool of prospective spouses means you find a spouse who has a more (or less) similar background to your own.

Today, I'm going to address commonalities and differences between couples. In some ways, this is a sociological vocabulary lesson. But it's an important one, that will allow us to delve into more specific issues.

When sociologists are looking at married couples, one of the chief analyses they do is to look at the couple's homogamy versus their heterogamy.

Homogamy basically describes the way in which a person marries someone with common traits.

Heterogamy, then, is marriage to someone who has principal traits are different than those of their spouse.

For the moment, we aren't talking about personal likes and dislikes. Instead, we're talking about a more basic, demographic level – e.g., race, ethnicity, religion, educational attainment. As a general rule, sociologists find that homogamous marriages are more stable than those which are heterogamous. Meaning, opposites may attract, they may even marry, but those relationships are less likely to last.

That does not mean that sociologists (or we) think people shouldn't marry members of another race or ethnicity, religion, etc.

Because ultimately, all marriages are to some extent, both homogamous and heterogamous. So we're talking about a matter of degrees, and we're also addressing when is it more important to be more homogamous, and when is it more important to be heterogamous. Those ideas change as our ideas of marriage, and larger society, change over time.

For example, interracial and inter-ethnic marriages have risen over the past few decades – something inconceivable a few decades ago, since it was just 40 years ago that interracial marriages were still illegal in states across the nation.

And religious heterogamy – marrying someone of a different sect – is on the rise.

On the other hand, we also seem to be increasingly marrying within our social / economic classes. So, notwithstanding my grandmother's claim, no, it is not as easy to marry a rich man as a poor man . . . unless you're already rich to begin with.

We are increasingly marrying spouses with similar educational backgrounds.

So demographic homogamy is an important factor – but some of the classic heterogamous / homogamous traits are switching or disappearing, even as the divorce rate has been stabilizing over time. (I have more on a couple specific factors at the end of this post.)

Now, what about those smaller differences and similarities you share?

What about those books for girls about how to talk to guys about sports? Having the requisite "Girls (Boys) Night Out"? Football widows? Of which, I'll never be one: good USC alum that I am, I love college football, don't care a hoot about basketball, I use the 'SC cheer "Fight on," as words of encouragement. Thus, I don't think I could be seriously involved with a UCLA Bruin.

And I might be right. It turns out that married couples who enjoy doing the same things are happier – no big surprise there. But it also turns out that wives who just do something because their husbands do it? So that they spend more time together? That might work for a while, depending on the activity. If you hate the beach, but your husband goes for walks on the shore, it might still be enjoyable because you get to spend time talking about your day. But if wives are consistently doing things they hate, just because their husband loves them, that can lead to increased unhappiness in the marriage.

Similarly, if husbands are weighted down by a perception that they are spending a lot of time with their wives, that actually can be a bad sign, because it indicates he's spending time with her out of obligation, and sacrificing what he really wants to do. Because it's sort of the married equivalent of the line, "She's too needy."

Wives, by the way, seem to get their husbands to do something they both enjoy, which means that the wives may not do their favorite things as much, but they get to do more things together, which they get pleasure out of. And it's better to mutually enjoy an activity than to trade off on dragging each other to the respective thing the other hates.

And I think this is quite sweet: husbands get more annoyed when they do things by themselves that they know both spouses genuinely enjoy.

In other words, spending time together, sharing activities is an important indicator of marital happiness (and never doing anything together is a bad sign), but participating in our significant other's activities, that you hate, just to be with them isn't the answer.

I think that's particularly resonant when considering a study that determined that the average British married couple is only actually together, interacting, for about two and a half hours a day, if they don't have kids, and just an hour and a quarter if they do have them. (Cohabitating couples spend even less time together.)

And most of that "together time" is spent watching television.

Which brings me to my own little theory about homogamy / heterogamy.

I think that differences in demographics, interests, etc., attract people – they may even marry for them – but couples spend so little time together when they are married, consumed with other obligations (children, jobs, etc.), that married couples don't have time for those differences. It may be fascinating conversation to hear about the way a date describes her family's cultural traditions for food preparation, but when they're married, the husband just wants to know if dinner is on the table or not. A wife doesn't want to always explain why she feels unwelcome in a particular social setting of the husband's: he should just understand and she doesn't have the time or energy to keep explaining it to him, anyway.

The oft-heard axiom is that "marriage is about compromise" – but if you marry someone who agrees with you, then you have less to compromise about. There's less room for conflict when you marry someone who already knows what's going on, will have the same traditions, same way to approach a problem. Less conflict leads to less stress which leads to less instability which leads to less marital instability and / or dissolution. So it's not that these more homogamous relationships are necessarily better, but they're easier. And in our time-crunched world, that just may be what we're looking for. . .

. . . Or, what we're happier with once we've found it . . . .

___________________________

Here are a couple additional thoughts on age at marriage, education, and religion, just to get the ball rolling as we continue this thread of discussion.

Age:

Traditionally, men marry at older ages than women, because they are supposed to have finished their education and secured a "breadwinner" role before they marry, whereas less women were going to school, and they didn't need to establish a career, since they were going to be homemakers. Thus, age is traditionally a somewhat heterogamous factor in marriage: the husband is usually a few years older than the wife.

But as women stay in school and secure careers, the age at first marriage has increased for women, and while it has for men, too, the age difference between a husband and a wife is increasingly narrowing. It used to be about three years; now it's down to about a year, and at least one preeminent sociologist predicts that the gap will gone entirely during the future. In other words, on an age basis, couples are becoming increasingly homogamous.

For those of you who wonder, there's some debate in the scholarship as to how much age difference actually affects marital stability. The general rule seems to be that age homogamy (or lack thereof) doesn't really affect a marriage . . . if the couple's following the traditional pattern where the man is the older spouse or if they are roughly the same age. But studies seem to show that when younger men marry older women, that leads to increased marital instability. Sorry, Girls, wish I could say something different, but that's what I've read.

Education:

Educational homogamy -- hasn't traditionally thought of as being crucial to a marriage, with the presumption being that the wife is less educated than her husband. However, educational homogamy seems to be increasing. Women seem to be have more similar educational backgrounds to their spouses. Or, the couple may marry educationally heterogamous, because one of the partners hasn't finished school yet, but they may eventually become educationally homogamous, as that partner finishes school.

How does this play out? If the couple desires a more homogamous relationship, one way to do that is for the less-educated partner to further his/her education -- so that the couple has more in common -- and that's been found to increase marital stability. But, on the other hand, if a couple decides to send one spouse for advanced education, in order to financially better the family, they are creating a new form of heterogamy within the marriage, and that can increase marital instability. So those couples who divorce because one financed the other's education, then they don't know each other any more aren't just mere anecdotes. There's a real issue going on.

I think of any of the transformations in marital relationships, this one may be potentially the most explosive, since women now outnumber the men in college: it could be that educational heterogamy returns, but now it will be the woman who is more educated. And I have no idea how that will play out. Will it mean the women become more of the authorities in the household, earning more than the men, and with more education? Will it mean we see men increasingly further their education once they've begun families, trying to restore that homogamy?

Religion:

Religious homogamy -- is another indicator of marital stability, but what may matter more than a person's individual denomination, is the spouses' participation in those religious activities, faith observance, etc. But we're not requiring identical behavior: in Catholic traditions, women are usually the churchgoers who drag the men along, if they're able.

But the prevalance of religious heterogamy is on the rise.

Next: Does Living Together Before You Marry Help or Hurt The Marriage?

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Will This Marriage Last? – Marrying "At A Certain Age"

From Ash:

I'm going to steal Po's and my thunder right away: age at first marriage is one of the strongest variables of marital stability there is.

Now by no means is it the only factor for a lasting marriage – so don't flip out if you're 40 and unmarried or you married at 19. Economics, education, and other factors all play a huge part, but age at marriage is one factor that's more readily able to isolate from all the rest, and it's also the one that people have the most control over.

So is early or later better?

Sociologists have found that couples who marry at younger ages are significantly more likely to divorce. The younger they are, the worse it is.

Now, who is a "younger" bride? Definitely someone under the age of 20. That, there seems to be no debate on. Teenage marriage, is on a trend-level, and sure there's always exceptions, not a great idea.

After that, there's some debate, and it's changing along the way. Because of increasing numbers going to school, etc., a young bride in the 1980s was probably 20. Now, a bride might be considered "young" at 22 or even years later.

You probably can predict some of the reasons why the couples who married at younger ages (note that they may not be "young" by the time they divorce) have problems. First, they are more immature. That can mean that they are ill-equipped to handle difficulties: they don't have emotional or communication skills to resolve conflicts. It also means that the interests and thoughts they had at 18 may not be the same views and passions they have at 25 or 35.

A couple marrying young may have done so because of an unplanned pregnancy, feeling they had to marry, not that they wanted to. They may have gotten married to get out of their parents' house, rather than from a desire to start their own.

Younger couples will have less resources, economically, which means that finances can put added strain on their marriage.

If none of those come as a surprise to you, here's one that might: younger brides may be fishing in too small a sea. They marry the first guy who seems right, without meeting enough men to have a real understanding of what their options were; they aren't exposed to the real variety out there. She married a guy because they grew up together and she never dated anyone else. Or they liked the same movies and had the same taste in music: she forgot to ask if he wanted to have kids or go to college. In fact, even just having the option to wait a couple more years before marriage can lower the instability of a younger bride's marriage, because at least she knows she willingly chose this guy instead of marrying him out of an age-based desperation.

So those are the drawbacks for having an early marriage. Here's what you can tell your parents that you've gained by waiting.

First, a wider range of available potential spouses. These prospective spouses will likely still be never-married themselves; they'll be about the same age or a bit older; they may have similar educational backgrounds (e.g., they meet at college). When they marry, they've met enough guys to know what really matters: they have the same belief system, goals.

They may not yet have established their careers, but they still have some resources to draw upon.

At the same time, psychologically, they're much more mature. They have better communication skills. They're likely to be more fully formed adults with a clearer sense of themselves.

Older brides and grooms are often more educated – we'll go into that more later, but that means they're more likely to be more involved in parenting, have better communication skills, etc. Older husbands tend to help out more with the housework, and be a little more egalitarian, which helps marital happiness.

In case you're curious, according to recent Census data, in 2005, the median age for an American woman's first marriage was 25.8; for men, it was 27.1.

For a while, scholars feared that if a woman is still unmarried in her late-20s, early 30s, the pool of available men would shrunk too much for her to find a marriageable man. All those newsreports and disapproving aunts who say "You're being too picky," and belief that may be true could result in women at that ages or older ultimately just grabbing a single man, whether or not he's right for her.

And yes, older women can marry a divorced man, but remarriages tend to be a little less stable (we'll discuss later), so that didn't salve the concerns.

But the median age at first marriage is on a steady increase for both men and women. From about 1940 to 1970, couples were actually getting married at an atypically young age. So they aren't a fair reference point. (And, not terribly surprisingly, couples who got married young in the 1970s divorced in the 1980s.) But since 1980, the age at first marriages has been on a fairly steady increase – the median age is about 3 years older than it was then.

So the window of unmarried marriageable men is staying open later. And higher populations of people going to college, careers taking longer to start, etc., women are still meeting new prospects with the new circumstances (new job opportunities, etc.) The men shortage doesn't seem to be as severe as was predicted.

At the same token, when women would formerly stop meeting men (once they've left college and are settling into jobs, thus meeting fewer new people), skyrocketing popularity of websites such as eHarmony.com, Jdate, etc., also seem to be lengthening the time in which to find compatible spouses.

Sociologists do wonder, however, that even if the availability problem is lessened, that the positives of later marriage may sort of cap out at some point, but they don't know when that is. There are theories about somewhere in the mid to late 30s, but they aren't sure. Women didn't formerly get married at 34 or 43, so there just aren't any ways to assess if these marriages last for decades – because there haven't been decades to test them out. Also, the education factor also really effects this: today, women with college educations and careers are do get married. A few decades ago, a college educated woman would probably never have used her education in the labor force, and before that, she would likely never have gotten married at all.

But with the data we do have, 35 is not better than 30, and 30 is not better than 25. The current bell curve peaks at 25. In other words, waiting is good - but you don't have to wait forever.

Next up: Opposites Attract, But Do They Stay Married?

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Will This Marriage Last? – Introductory Post

From Ash:

That's what we're all wondering, right? When we once again hear, "50% of marriages end in divorce," we sneak a peak across the dining table and wonder if he'll still be there a few years from now. Or we wonder if the newlywed couple will still be married by the time they get their gift.

So over the next few days, we're going to take a look at some of the factors that contribute to marital stability – and those that seem to increase the likelihood of divorce.

There's an amazing amount of study on this: by the mid-1990s, scholars had already looked at over 200 possible factors of marital stability. Obviously, we're not going to go into them all. I mean I'd love to be able to tell you that the key to a terrific, life-long marriage is to marry a woman who looks like your mother. That is what a sociologist had determined in 1929, but I haven't found any more recent data on that, and I think it's sort of creepy, besides.

So we are going to look at some larger aspects of marriage, as well as a few that seem small, but have a surprising amount of influence in the couple's relationship. And we'll examine how things like cohabitation works out as a testing ground for marriage. I mean, living together to see how you are together seems like a reasonable way to find out how you would be as a married couple, but does it really work out that way in the long run?

In the coming days, we're going to tackle questions like (but not necessarily in this order):

Does living together before marriage work?
Do working women divorce more?
When do couples get divorced? Is there really a Seven-Year Itch, even if your next door neighbor doesn't look like Marilyn Monroe or Eva Longoria?
Do children make a couple stay together or split them up?
If I divorced once, is my next marriage doomed, too?
Is it really as easy to marry a rich man as a poor man? (That's what my grandmother always said.)
How do money and education impact a marriage?
How does my parents' divorce impact the likelihood that I'm going to divorce?
Am I too old to get married?
I know opposites attract, but do they split up, too?

Some of the answers will come as no surprise. But some assuredly will startle you, just as it did us. I mean, we were both struck over how the sex of your children affects your likelihood of divorcing. But that was nothing compared to how Po reacted when I told him about how grandparents play into all this.

Now, time for my requisite legal disclaimer. No, we are not saying that you are going to be divorced. And, conversely, we're not saying your marriage is the rock-solid, til death you part, one either. Every marriage is going to work out differently, and we wouldn't dare to guess how yours is doing. And God forbid we should try to recommend how to fix it.

Instead, we are going to look at influences on a general basis – the factors that seem to shape marriages as a whole, and across various demographic groups. And through these, perhaps you'll be better able to see both potential strengths and fault lines in your relationship, and understand how to better address them.

If you're frightened off marriage by all the doom-and-gloom reporting on divorce statistics that is out there – if you're someone who figures "Why bother if everyone just gets divorced anyway?" – perhaps some of this will give you a different perspective on it.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Further Commentary on our Time essay on Goofing Off, including a conversation with Tom Lutz, author of “Doing Nothing”

From Po and Ash:

In Time magazine this week, on the "back page" (the last page), we have a fun essay on the crazy, paradoxical relationship Americans have with relaxation and vacations and goofing off. (You can read it on Time.com via this link.) [FYI, Time did not give Ashley her shared credit for this essay - but it's the work of both our minds, I assure you. – Po]

Americans “busy up” our vacations so much that we actually find them stressful. Increasingly, we’re not using our available vacation days, even though we get very few in the first place. But we’re finding other, unconventional ways to goof off. Our essay focuses on “stolen time” – our tendency to space out at work or grab snippets of relaxation in between meetings and errands.

Our title for the essay was "How Americans are trading in vacation days for coffee breaks." We wrote about how we all dash to Starbucks, but the epitome of this trend has to be the software company Delicious Monster, in Seattle. They make a bestselling organizer tool for the Macintosh, so they are successful enough to rent an office. Instead, they use the local coffee house – literally. Their employees show up at Zoka Coffee every day, grab tables, and log on to the free WiFi. In a sense, they are multi-tasking like high-level zen masters – both relaxing and working simultaneously.

If you're one of the people we wrote about who steals time at work, and if you ever wonder whether you can be fired for it, a case on that issue was decided recently in New York. An employee of the state's Dept. of Education surfed the internet a lot, mostly "reading." His boss didn't like it. The case went to court, and the judge sided with the employee. Surfing the internet for personal use is no different than occasionally making personal telephone calls. As long as the latter is allowed, so should the former. Funny thing is, the Dept. of Education went ahead and fired him anyway for general insubordination. Oh, and a recent survey found that 1 out of 3 large companies had fired staff for sending personal email.

So the answer is, yes, you probably can be fired for it. The deciding factor is probably going to be how much stealing time you do, compared to the time you actually spend working.

Here’s one of the statistics we love, but we couldn’t fit into our Time essay. Americans feel like we work longer hours than ever, but it’s actually not true. Our average work day is almost an hour shorter than it was forty years ago – we have more leisure time than ever. But we can’t sense it, because we don’t use our leisure time to relax; we are so active in our leisure that it adds to our stress, not reduces it. The more leisure time we get, the busier we feel.

Either that, or we don't even consider our leisure to be leisure, since not doing anything at all -- just hanging out in front of the television.

Which brings us to University of Iowa Professor Tom Lutz, whom we'd wanted to discuss in our essay, but it was another piece unfortunately cut due to the magazine's 800-word count requirement.

Tom has written this intriguing book called Doing Nothing: A History Of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers and Bums in America , which is receiving a smashing amount of attention.

Most of the press been over an amazement that a book about doing nothing would be a surprisingly serious, scholarly review of the work ethic, or lack thereof, throughout history. But indeed it is just that.

And that's what we found the most compelling in the book, and in conversations we had with him: According to Lutz, the work ethic is more than a vague idea. It's also an emotional response. And more often than not, the relevant emotion is anger. (Lutz even began writing the book out of a desire to understand his own anger towards his son's spending days in front of the television.)

As Lutz explains, hardworking people are furious at those they perceive as slackers – their refusal to make a meaningful contribution to society, their seeming detachment from the drive to succeed, or even just to make ends meet. A slacker is just one rent-check away from being a mooch, after all. Slackers refuse to participate in what we believe are at our society's core values: they're traitors in our capitalist midst. (Indeed, as Lutz points out, the term "slacker" was originally used to describe wartime traitors and those who refused to enlist.)

But, Lutz continues, the hostility is mutual. Slackers are angry (if it doesn't take too much energy) at those who work, because they believe that the workers' effort is nothing more than misdirected energy: workers greedily pursue a meaningless paperchase when what is really important is spending time with friends and family, enjoying one's pursuits. Workers may be in lock-step with society's purpose, they'd argue, but they are missing life's purpose.

Interestingly, Lutz believes that the war between the workers and the slackers really began during the Industrial Revolution. No one on the farm ever protested that they worked until the cows came home. You just did what needed to be done. And you rested and joked and loved along the way. (In fact, even today, a family farm is still exempt from most child labor and other work condition laws.)

But with the factory came a new sense of "work" being defined not just by what needed to be done – but also by how many hours of the day were given to your employer.

As workers became increasingly shackled to their posts in the factory, there came an increasingly dramatic bifurcation between the time you gave to the job and the time left to yourself. Which is when we saw strikes over hours spent at work – because time for the personal went out the factory window. So the workers demanded that the hours be capped in a way they never were in the farm-setting, when work and family and the personal coexisted.

Which was a particularly interesting consideration for us. As we pointed out in our Time essay, Americans are stealing personal time throughout the day. This merging of personal time back into our work might be the more natural state. And the idea that we're just supposed to be straight worker-bees may be more of a recently fabricated myth than reality.

Therefore, since the work ethic is as much emotion as reality, it's equally a matter of perspective . . . which lead us to another one of the more intriguing twists on work Lutz discussed with me: work fantasies. Even those of us who are the most serious workaholics still have the fantasy of winning the lottery (or making a killing in the stock market) – the means don't matter as much as the end: being rich enough to never work again.

But there is another fantasy, related, we also play with – and this one we rarely talk about. I’ll call it “the perfect slacker job fantasy.” It’d be a job where you get paid a decent amount, for a full 40 hour week, when in fact you only have to work a couple hours a day. The rest of the time, you get to goof off – and nobody will ever catch you. Lutz mentioned, as an example, a guy who inspects liquor stores. He gets paid full time, but he only has to check 2 or 3 stores a day, which takes him only a couple hours at most. He’s home for lunch every day. It’s an awesome gig . . .

. . . unless it's your tax-dollars paying for it, dollars you earned with a long, hard 10-hour day, in which case it's outrageous, infuriating, and grossly unfair.

I remember this slacker-job fantasy, when I was young. During college I used to be a union janitor, working the graveyard shift midnight to dawn, while I had friends who had scored these incredible summer jobs. They were the kind of jobs star college football players might be given by some deep-pocket alumni. They barely had to lift a finger.

The thing about this fantasy is, we judge it differently if it’s our job or someone else’s job. If it’s our job, we think it’s deliciously cool to be getting away with it. We don’t consider ourselves lazy – we considers ourselves lucky. But if it’s your neighbor with a job like this, then we despise him – we think he’s lazy and a cheater.

Which gets us to the core of Lutz’s book. Borne out of a middle-class tension between a drive to earn our keep and a desire to live the life of Riley, we condemn slackers and "do nothings," but we secretly wish we could be more like them.

Slacking off is every bit a permanent part of American culture as working hard. Goofing off (a little) is like a primal need for us. Why do we criticize slackers – when they’re not harming anyone, certainly not you? We do it because somehow by putting them down, we make ourselves feel better about the compromises we’ve had to make in our lives.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

A Different Sort of Father's Day News Story

From Ash:

I just got finished writing This Week's Recommended Reading, when this just posted, and you just have to read it. But you may need a tissue.

AP reporter Deborah Hastings filed this story about a father-daughter Girl Scout troop. That by itself, might be sweet, but what makes this unique is that the Scout meetings are held at an Ohio prison. One of a handful of such programs in the nation, and the only one for fathers, the girls' fathers are all serving prison sentences -- some long enough that they won't leave prison until their girls are adults themselves.

The one thing I wish the piece did was follow-up on if the program has changed the convicts, effected recidivism, etc. But just thinking about the men saying the Girl Scout pledge with their ponytailed little girls -- oh, just read it yourself. It's a pretty short piece, but the images will stay with you, I promise. If you're a daughter, you'll probably want to hug your father a little longer, and if you're a dad with a little girl, you probably won't let that hug end.

This Week's Recommended Reading

From Ash:

Choosing Your Baby's Sex

(Apart from major news stories) I think the most perturbing story I saw this week was an AP story about parents' choosing the gender of their children. We've had a Huxleyian debate whether or not it was happening, was a good thing, for years now, but it turns out that the US is becoming destination for wealthy couples from elsewhere around the world who want to choose their child's gender. At first, I thought it was that they were using ultrasound, then aborting a child of the wrong sex. Instead, it turns out that they artificially inseminate a few eggs, then wait far enough in the process to determine the sex: when it's the "right one," that's what they go with. I can't tell how widely this is going on, probably not that much, but it's still frightening enough that I expect that some newsmagazines (print or t.v.) and other venues will be picking this up in the near future.

Education Making a Difference Beyond the Classroom

On the other hand, I was surprised how unfortunately little coverage this story got. A Harvard prof, looking at the rate of deaths in hospitals due to error -- an estimated 44,000 to 98,000 deaths per anum -- decided to create a six-point program to address these problems. He convinced 3,100 hospitals to sign up for the program. After 18 months, they determined that the program probably saved 120,000 lives or more.

AP also reported on much smaller program -- but with just as worthy a goal. Following the example of a few other states, Maine is training its beauty salon employees to recognize the symptoms of domestic violence in their clients, hoping that the stylists, who see women on a regular basis, in a non-threatening environment, will be able to refer those who need help to services they need.

Gentification

The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times had two twists on the normal coverage of urban redevelopment. First, the Post reported that there's an unlikely way to spot gentrification in the District of Columbia: new yoga studios are opened in areas that are just on the verge of being up-and-coming. (And here I was thinking it was the arrival of a Starbucks on every corner.) And the LAT reported that a result of gentrification is that school enrollment in some LA urban areas is fallen because of gentrification. That's not a new or unique problem, but here, it's actually sort of a good thing -- not that poorer families are being economically forced out of the area -- but that it is slightly alleviating the horrendous overcrowding of schools in those areas.

The Mosquito Ring Tone

The New York Times had a piece this week about a new phone ring tone that is a high enough frequency that teens can hear, but an adult often can't, due to "aging ear." This story hit their "most emailed" list for a couple days, but, for my money, NPR's coverage a couple weeks ago was better. Why? Because they had a sample of the tone on its website as well, and I could still hear it, proving I'm not old after all!!


"Breast feed or else"

The Times fared better on this piece, "Breast feed or else" about the movement to encourage (force?) women to breast feed their children until they're six months old.

Student Loans

Granted, I'm particularly sensitive to the subject, having a loan pay-off date of 2035, but I also was intrigued by the NYT Magazine piece on how some colleges are addressing the student loan problem -- that college debt forces people into careers that they don't really want, etc. -- and how colleges and other countries are trying to remedy this program with grants, different repayment plans, etc.

Uncle Wil

Not directly newsworthy, but for a truly heartwrenching look at the complex fate of the African-American underclass, don't miss Wil Haygood's autobiographical feature in the Washington Post Magazine. At times, you'll probably be angered by the piece, wondering why the members of his family aren't more pro-active removing children from their drug-ridden, neglectful parents, but Haygood constantly reminds you that, as messed up as they are, the parents love their kids, too, and that there is no easy answer.

But Did She Say Yes??

Paging Wait, Wait . . . Don't Tell Me: AP reported that an Ann Arbor man was trying convince his girlfriend that they should get married, but she wasn't sure she was ready to take the big leap of faith. He decided to prove to her that sometimes, you gotta take a risk. So he stripped naked, jumped out of a first-story window and ran across the street. When a neighbor, hearing what he thought was a prowler, promptly chased and then shot him. The guy is all right, and neither man is pressing charges. But in the most egregious factual omission in an article I can recall in quite a while, the reporter never said if the couple got engaged. Not that you can blame the girl, if she said "No."

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

For My UK Readers

From Po:

Occasionally I get an email from a reader in the UK who begs, "don't forget about us over here!"

I recognize that Ashley and I are mostly quoting facts and statistics about life in the United States, since the majority of this blog's readers are here. We've used some statistics from around the world, but mostly to put the United States' follies in a proper perspective.

So here's something for my UK readers. Last Saturday, Ashley and I had the cover story of The Guardian's "Work" section, on a mother's right to work. The art for this was amazing, taking up the entire cover - two moms, dressed as 19th century military generals, fighting over a map of their child's lives. This link will take you to the article, but it doesn't show the art (sorry). The theme is the same as our article for Time, a father's take on the mommy wars. All of the statistics are from the UK.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Education Completion - To Whom It May Concern

From Ash:

I know I've blogged a little bit on the controversy and resultant lawsuits over the California high school exit exam, but it's worth revisiting now that the kids are picking up their caps and gowns. As I mentioned before, I'm torn over the dispute: should we let kids who haven't actually earned a high school education receive a diploma?

Not having come up with any brilliant answers, I've come up a couple alternatives.

First, we could hand out diplomas with little asterisks and legal disclaimers at the bottom.

It would read something like this:

*By awarding the diploma, School makes no representations or warranties as to what, if any, education the recipient has received while at School. Receipt of a diploma is in no way a guarantee of mastery of high school academics. Further, School is in no way liable to Recipient, employers or any others who rely on Diploma as an indicator of academic proficiency or achievement. Instead, Diploma is given on a purely ceremonial basis because Recipient already planned a party.

Of course, that messes with the kids' diplomas that actually do mean something.

So, instead, perhaps the kids who haven't passed the exit exam should receive a letter that goes something like this:

To Whom It May Concern,

_________ (name) was a student enrolled at ________ High School during the period of ____ to ____ (applicable years).

During that time, the student passed ___ (number) courses out of the ___ (number) required for graduation. The student's cumulative G.P.A. was _____.

The student did not successfully pass the high school exit exam in _ English _ Math, and thus did not receive a diploma. The student's failure to pass the exit exam and achieve minimal proficiency is: (choose "A" or "B")

A. the student's responsibility, primarily because of (check all that apply)

_ consistent absenteeism
_ lack of effort

B. the school's responsibility, primarily due to the following: (check all that apply)

_ The school's faculty do not meet the minimum requirements for educators.
_ School facilities (lack of security, disrepair, overcrowding, etc.) made it impossible to teach our students.
_ Student is a recent immigrant whose native language is other than English.
_ Student has a learning disability.

Thus, ______ (name) has completed his/her term at ____ High School, but has not earned a high school education. Accordingly, we advise future employers, academic institutions, etc. to conduct their own testing of Student to ascertain his/her actual proficiency. . . but then we know how Student does on tests, so good luck with that.

We wish the student all the best, and we hope that the student has a successful future.

Very truly yours,
___________, Principal (name)


Well, do you have a better idea?

I thought these were a whimsical, Modest sort of Proposal, but then, I read in the Boston Globe that New Bedford, Mass. will be giving out "Certificates of Completion" to students who are finishing high school without being able to pass the Mass. exit exam requirements. The Mayor had first said he was going to give them diplomas anyway, but then Mass. Governor Mitt Romney said that the city would lose its state education funding if he did that -- to the tune of $106 million.

So maybe I should hurry up and send my disclaimer and form letter to the Copyright Office, before schools start using them.

It's an awfully touchy subject.

I absolutely agree with the assertion that schools in poor areas usually are the worst: they are underfunded and understaffed. And the teachers are the greenest and least prepared, and they are teaching the kids who come to school the poorest, the least prepared and need the most help. Not that my assessment on this needed more evidence -- but more came last week from the Education Trust. A study it just released found that the best teachers can save failing students from underprivileged backgrounds -- but that they aren't the ones who are teaching in those schools. The least experienced and least qualified teachers are disproportionately at poorer schools, and their students, not surprisingly, do terribly.

I don't want to punish children for the ways that society has systematically failed them.

On the other hand, while I understand that the kids want a special day, to give them a diploma may be ultimately crueler than withholding it. Because it's a lie. A meaningless piece of paper that they might think actually means something. They might not go to summer school or get remedial ed, because they think that society's well. . . pity over their failure to educationally thrive ultimately can replace their own individual achievement.

For a day on a graduation stage, it may, but for the rest of their life, it doesn't. So what then? Is a diploma just the lovely parting gift -- a consolation prize for the rest of your life?

Sunday, June 11, 2006

This Week's Recommended Reading (More)

From Ash:

Homelessness

The New York Times has an interesting feature on a new effort to end homelessness by putting people in permanent apartments, rather than temporary shelters.

Parental Involvement . . . or Else.

The Chicago Sun Times reported that local police are redoubling their annual efforts to get kids off the street by fining parents up to $500 for their under-17 year-old children being out past the city's curfew. What I think is best about this is that the program isn't just the fines: counseling and other social services are available for those parents who say that they need help: that they and/or their kids are in trouble.

Gay Marriage

Jonathan Rauch wrote a thought-provoking op-ed arguing that the calls for gay marriage arose out of the difficulties gay partners have faced during the 25 years since the AIDS epidemic began.

Migration

I'm fascinated by how huge an issue migration is worldwide. And I haven't yet seen much coverage of it yet in US media, but the United Nations has released a new report on global migration. I haven't read the report yet, but the press release and fact sheet are mindblowing on their own. (For example, in 2005, 191 million people lived outside of their home countries.)

The BBC's coverage this week puts some of that in a more concrete perspective, with its piece on there's a global shortage of nurses, and migration of nurses to better-paying countries is only making things worse.

Muslim Women

While the San Francisco Chronicle reported on the reactions (pro and con) facing an Islamic mosque that has removed a wall between its male and female worshippers, the New York Times highlighted some of the results of a worldwide survey of Muslim women. This survey, by Gallup, found that women in Islamic nations do not consider themselves to be oppressed, they want equality . . . but they also think that there are more urgent problems in their countries (e.g., violence, corruption) that need to be addressed first.

Because It Isn't the Same Old Reporting

Read this piece in the Christian Science Monitor about the financial strains faced by the average congressman due to the demands of his office. I think it's a story that people should know: the corrupt congressmen make headlines. But the struggles the good guys face unfortunately rarely see the light of day.

And just for fun,

CNN reported that a judge had just seen too much conflict between two attorneys appearing before him. So he ordered them to resolve yet another dispute by playing a game of "rock, paper, scissors."

This Week's Recommended Reading

From Ash:

I have a few more interesting articles to blog about, and will later today, but I thought that these pieces on education sort of stood on their own.

AP (via the Boston Globe) reported that it isn't just in the US that kids are scrambling to get into college. In China, 9.5 million students are taking part in a 3-day college extrance exam: just 2.3 million of them will make it into a college or university. As a result over stress like that, an estimated 32 to 50 of Chinese youths suffer from clinical depression and other emotional disorders. This past week, one 16-year old committed suicide over the exam: she'd reportedly been sent out of the room because her hair wasn't properly in place with barrettes: by the time she came back, the exam had begun and she wasn't allowed in. A few hours later, she had drowned herself.

Things aren't quite as bad here at home, but they're still pretty perturbing.

If you're following the Washington Post series on the too-grim fate of African-American men in the U.S., don't miss these articles in the Chicago Sun-Times and the Los Angeles Times.

The Chi article reports on a new study by the Education Trust which has found that students with the least academic skills, the poorest, etc., can be saved by a fabulous teacher. But that they aren't, because these kids who need help the most, actually get the worst teachers. Teachers without credentials, experience, or even mastery of their own subjects, are disproportionately found in the schools with underprivileged kids.

What's the result of this?

Well, it probably can be found in the LAT piece -- a report on the frightening lack of African-American students at the University of California campuses.

While they make up about 7% of the state's high school populuation, out of the almost 4,900 students in UCLA's incoming freshman class, just 96 of them, just 2%, will be African-American. That's the lowest number since 1973. And of these, 20 of them are recruited athletes.

It's even worse at UC San Diego -- just 52 students (1.1%). UC Berkeley will have 140 African-American students, 3.3% of its class. Latinos are doing better than that, but they're still not near parity.

Which makes another article, in the San Francisco Chronicle, all the more poignant, and a second article in the LA Times seem sort of ridiculous by comparison.

The Chronicle's piece is a profile of several minority students who are at Berkeley, despite extraordinary personal hardships (e.g., the young woman whose parents were murdered, leaving her to raise her 5 brothers and sisters, while in school). The article's purpose was to call attention to a scholarship program for these students, and believe me, you'll want to get your checkbook out after reading it.

The LA Times piece is about a (very small) number of colleges that are offering their students classes about "life after college" -- from basic cooking to how to file taxes. Not that this is a bad idea, but when you consider how pampered the children who need these programs are, in comparison to those in the Chronicle story, you'll just feel embarrassed over the situation.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Bush Return to Gay Marriage Debate Is Pathetic Political Ploy

From Ash:

George Bush and the Senate's recent return to debating gay marriage are an absolute embarrassment, and you owe it to the nation to protest.

All right, I'm not known to be a fan of George Bush. And I admit that I'm a card-carrying lib. In other words, the Bush Administration couldn't care less about what I think. But I know at least a couple Republicans out there who read our blog, and perhaps there are others, so this message is especially for you. You have to speak out, because they care what you think. Or at least, they care about whether or not you keep contributing to the RNC.

There is no new reason to revive discussion of a Constitutional Amendment. There is absolutely no new issue, no new fact, no new court decision that would motivate either the Senate's taking this issue up for debate or President Bush's support of a ban on gay marriage. And I'm not the only one saying that. Senators -- Republican Senators -- are saying that.

The only possible explanation is that Bush's approval ratings are in an unstoppable free-fall, and the Senate is worried about midterm elections, so they've decided to return to a moral issue that will scare its conservative base back into the fold.

Ideally, I suppose the thinking goes -- the ultra-conservatives can be whipped into such a one or two issue moral frenzy that they won't even be physically capable of looking at the opposition candidates' credentials and positions. They'll forget about the war or gas prices or immigration or failing schools. Instead, all they will vote on is the threat of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Which, when you think about it from the Republican strategist point of view, is even better than the old terrorism scare tactic -- because hey, Al Qaeda is a threat -- but it's God who could strike us down for gay marriage.

Bush and the supporters of the Amendment argue the issue is about protecting the family and marriage as cornerstones of our society. If so, then they themselves should be appalled at their sheer political expediency. Because revisiting the debate now can only lead to the ultimate politicization -- and thus trivialization -- of the issue. And by issue, I mean any subsequent consideration of the "family" and all related issues, such as adoption (by gay or straight), divorce, housing, et cetera.

Seriously, we have to speak out. And I firmly believe that this is the case no matter how you feel about the issue -- whether you support or object to gay marriage. We shouldn't let allow these politicians to use cultural and moral issues as an expedient way to divide the nation and thus escape their failings in governance.

If you live in California, Alabama, Iowa, Maine, and Mississippi, let your voice be heard by voting in today's primaries. Everyone else, below are the comment contacts for you.

The White House (202-456-1111 or comments@whitehouse.gov)
Congress (202-224-3121 or write your representative )
Senator Bill Frist: 202-224-3344 or link to comment form

Saturday, June 03, 2006

This Week's Recommended Reading

From Ash:

For those of you interested in the upcoming debate in the Senate on gay marriage, you might also want to consider following this New York case, challenging the state's refusal marry gay couples. I haven't read the case materials myself, but I keep reading the AP reports, wondering how such cases will impact the Senate's debate and the upcoming elections.

No matter how you might feel about the California Supreme Court having re-instated the high school exit exam, you might want to read this piece in the New York Times, about students who flunk or just drop-out of high school, but then proceed to college anyway. In this take, it's not that the kids really seem to have subsequently gotten their acts together, academically, but that they just seem to skip over to college anyway. These are, of course, fringe cases, but it makes me wonder if a college education is becoming as devalued as a high school education -- i.e. it's a piece of paper that you need, as supposed to an education that you want and /or benefit from.

I mentioned a couple weeks ago that Russia's trying to spur its birth rate through financial incentives -- but there's a lot of skepticism as to whether or not it will work. Well, Australia just hit the news that it's having a baby boom -- the highest birth rate since 1992 -- and they're attributing it to -- you guessed it -- its government's new financial incentives.

And in news of the idiotic . . .

a California woman sued her matchmaker for not coming up with the men of her dreams, or even the guys she was promised. She won over $2 million.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Thanks To ABC For Prime Time Spelling Bee

From Ash:

I just have to say a quick "thank you" to ABeeC for its decision to air the National Spelling Bee on prime time.

Finally, a televised competition that didn't involve a ball of some type, or eating a cockroach.

Finally, a celebration of children's educational achievement. Thank God.

I let my Tutoring Kids watch the Bee once they'd finished their homework. They were cheering, yelling out the words' spelling along with the contestants. They grabbed a dictionary to follow along, and then they complained when that huge dictionary wasn't big enough -- and that I hadn't thought to bring my OED. (And these are kids who normally are allergic to dictionaries.) Three of them were so into it that they stayed an hour after Tutoring was over to watch til the end.

I hope the ratings were huge, and that it's the first of many such events to come.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Are Americans Suffering Diversity Fatigue? - Read our essay at Time.com

Ashley and I have another new essay at Time.com this week. (Go read it off this link, then come back and comment here - Time doesn't have comments enabled yet.)

We had been pulling string on a variety of fascinating anecdotes that had occurred in the news over the last couple weeks, and then last week we saw what connected them all together - they demonstrate the ways Americans are finding new legal means to exclude some people, out of a desire to congregate with "people like us." Not just religious conservatives are doing this, by any means - the trend is true of liberals as well.

This was a tricky essay to write. My fingers kept typing phrases that condemned this practice, and yet in my mind I didn't actually condemn any of it - if anything, I was more confused what I felt, and recognized it as a natural impulse. So the essay walks a fine line.

In it, we mention that an unmarried couple in Manhattan was turned down by a condominium co-op association for being unmarried. What we didn't get to mention there was that yes, this couple is suing.