Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The New York Times Piece on Divorce: Overly Optimistic

There is a lot of buzz this week about this piece in the New York Times by Claire Cain Miller, The Divorce Surge Is Over, but the Myth Lives On. The upshot is that the divorce rate surged a good number of years ago and the current likely, lifetime divorce risk for a newly married couple is substantially lower than it was a couple of decades ago.

I believe the article is quite correct to note that statements suggesting that the divorce rate is “50 percent and climbing” are truly off base. The divorce rate has been steadily coming down. That really is good news, and it is a myth that the divorce rate climbs ever higher. It has not. There is something important that is still climbing, but I’ll come to that.

The New York Times article describes a lot of the complex changes in society that may go into all of what has changed about the odds of divorce.

As my colleagues know, while being a cheery sort, I am well able to articulate the pessimistic side in family trends. Working to make things different? Sure. Recognizing what’s really happening? More surely.

So, let’s take this happy moment and put a couple of dents into it. 

First, even in the most optimistic estimate offered by economist Justin Wolfers, over a third of couples newly marrying are likely eventually to divorce. That’s way better than 50% or more but it’s still a strong chance of divorce among those who do get married.   

Second, and much more importantly in my view, there are a number of other trends that are consequential that go hand-in-hand with the declining divorce risk among those who marry. In part, what has been happening is that an increasingly select group makes up the overall group of who marries. This group is select for having lower overall risk in their life circumstances and also for being more likely to enter marriage with the type of timing and sequence that makes success in marriage far more likely. I am talking about college graduates. In contrast, marriage rates have been falling off for others, especially for those with great economic disadvantage and those in the working class. For more on that latter point, see this report, When Marriage Disappears

The New York Times piece does describe these divergent trends based on wealth, class, education, and disadvantage. 

While there is an overall net good thing happening with the trends toward less divorce, another phenomenon still grows: As far as I understand, the number of children being born in low commitment contexts continues to go up. That’s not so rosy a picture. My term—low commitment contexts—is purely descriptive. I simply mean that a child arrives before two parents have decided on a future together or on raising a family and this child together. I believe this is an issue that rarely receives the attention it deserves, and it lies at the intersection of various types of bad news about current trends. I have written about this issue in a piece at the Institute for Family Studies blog, wherein I also addresses some of the recent and important discussions around this subject. If you are interested in more thought on the issue of timing and the formation of commitment, here you go:  Marriage and Positive Child Outcomes: Commitment, Signaling, and Sequence.  

Want More On The "Divorce Rate"? 

If you are interested in more about divorce numbers, I have something you may find useful. Many years ago, I wrote a little document on “What Really Is the Divorce Rate?” In it, I tried to address a lot of confusion I would hear in others over the years about what the “divorce rate” really is—confusion that stems from the considerable complexity that lies behind what the average person expects to be a simple number that someone should be able to nail down in a way that’s understandable. There are, in fact, a lot of different types of numbers that people latch onto when it comes to divorce. So, it’s not simple. I update that document ever year or two, and did so last year. I am not a demographer and I do not play one on TV (nor did I stay at a Holiday Inn recently). Nevertheless, I was looking over what I have in the current version of that document and I thought it holds up pretty well for explaining some of the confusion people have about divorce numbers. It also talks about some of the complex counter currents such as I briefly alluded to above. So, if you are interested, have at it.

If you are a demographer and you read that document and you think I got something wrong, let me know. I have had input from a number of demographers over the years and am always happy to update this type of document to make it more useful.