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What’s Love Got to Do With It?

“Britain has fallen out of love with marriage” was the front page headline in the Daily Telegraph yesterday.  The story announced that, for the first time since the census began in 1801, married couples are a minority in Britain–45% of adults, according to the newly-released 2011 Census.

The story also reported that the bulk of population increase is attributable to immigration, that the number of households where adults don’t speak English has risen, that the percentage of Britain that is white and Christian is slipping, and that native-born whites are now a minority in London.These facts were recounted with the usual xenophobic tone and accompanied by dire predictions that the UK is rapidly becoming, God forbid, a diverse nation

The fearful conservative attitude probably accounts for their framing of the marriage data. A callout shouts that Brits are lazily recycling their marriages instead of working to fix them. Scenarios in which divorced homes produce dysfunctional, drug-addicted teens are trotted out for our collective future. Some perfectly silly explanations are offered, like that people don’t want to pay for weddings in a recession.

A clearer view of the long term and regional trends is the better window on these statistics.  First, there is the simple fact that it has become very difficult indeed to support a family on one income. Widespread acceptance of co-habitation has largely taken away the old expectation that one must be married to have sex (yes, Virginia,there was a time in living memory when most people believed that sex outside marriage was wrong).  At the same time, the rising numbers of women in the workplace means they no longer need to marry in order to achieve basic subsistence (again, Virginia, you must take my word that this was the reality for your grandmother and, actually, most of your mother’s friends). Divorce has also made marriage less secure as an institution, meaning it no longer guarantees a woman who does not work that she will always have a safety net (Virginia, have you ever even heard the word “alimony”?).

So, if you are going to have to work anyway and you can have sex when you want it and marriage offers no promise of permanence in any sense, why do it? Many young people will tell you there is only one reason left to marry: having children.  But even that reason is disappearing rapidly and that’s only partly because divorce applies as much to children as parents.

The bigger issue–and this explains further aspects of the 2011 Census–is that people are having fewer children and many are choosing to remain childless.  Dropping fertility rates have been a concern all over Europe for years now.  The UK has lagged behind the trend, but now birth rates here, too, are falling, especially among the native born white Christian population.

The reasons for dropping fertility are widely agreed. Right off, the cost of child-rearing has become prohibitive.  The societal failure to confront and relieve the conflicting burdens of mothering and working is at least equal in importance.  This leaves each generation of women to face, mostly alone, the prospect of 20+ years of bone-grinding stress trying to balance the demands of career with those of children.  Or not!  Nations that cling most closely to old gender norms (Italy and Japan head the list of usual suspects), see the impact of their backward attitudes in very low female labor force participation and fertility rates well below replacement.

No country can afford to tolerate that outcome. It foretells an aging population, thus a future workforce staggering with the weight of supporting the elderly. Yet these countries continue to withhold support for childcare, to allow massive discrimination against women in pay and promotion, to discourage part-time and flextime work, and to construct no “on ramp” back to full time employment

Britain is one of “these countries.” But the UK has a special condition that, unlike eastern Europe (where the figures are truly dismal), there is a ready stream of immigrants to come in and flesh out the labor force.  These immigrant groups tend to be dark-skinned and non-Christian–and to have higher birth rates than British born women. Hence, the change in the complexion of Britain is also an outcome of poor policy toward women.  So, Britain’s unsympathetic attitude toward working mothers not only foreshadows an aged future, but harkens the loss of its culture of origin

The Telegraph ends with an astonishingly lame offering: reluctant support for a niggardly  tax break for married couples where one spouse (guess which one) stays at home.  This proposed change would allow the non-working spouse to shift her tax-free allowance to her spouse if he makes less than £44,000. It is estimated that this reform would apply to only 4 million married couples–about a third of the total–and would save them about £150 annually.  This savings, of course, is paltry, unlikely to induce anyone drawing a salary to choose to stop working–especially if her spouse was making only £44,000 and they were planning a family.  And, oddly, the reform focuses on the very people the Telegraph wishes to disappear: poor, non-Christian, non-white households where wives often stay home to raise large families. (Note, for instance, that Muslims of Asian origin in the UK cluster at the top of every measure of poverty, have larger families than any other group, as well as the lowest rates of female labor force engagement and the highest rates of early marriage.)

Underlying this ludicrous Telegraph treatment of the 2011 Census data is a problem that runs right through the British press: a complete failure to document, analyze, and publish intelligently on the”women’s issues” that, in fact, affect the future of the entire nation.


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