Saturday, August 5

Facing Middle Age With No Degree, and No Wife

August 6, 2006
The New Gender Divide

Once, virtually all Americans had married by their mid-40’s. Now, many American men without college degrees find themselves still single as they approach middle age.

About 18 percent of men ages 40 to 44 with less than four years of college have never married, according to census estimates. That is up from about 6 percent a quarter-century ago. Among similar men ages 35 to 39, the portion jumped to 22 percent from 8 percent in that time.

At virtually every level of education, fewer Americans are marrying. But the decline is most pronounced among men with less education. Even marriage rates among women professionals over 40 — who, it was once said, had a better chance of being killed by a terrorist than of finding a husband — have stabilized in recent years.

The decline in marriage can be traced to many factors, experts say, including the greater economic independence of women and the greater acceptance of couples living together outside of marriage. For men without higher education, though, dwindling prospects in the labor market have made a growing percentage either unwilling to marry or unable to find someone to marry them.

Doug Thomas, 45, a computer technician with one year of college, has spent more of his adult life securing his financial footing than he has searching for a wife.

“I make enough where sure, I could get married, and sure, the girl would not have to work,” said Mr. Thomas, of Fort Collins, Colo.

But he worries what that would mean for the relationship and whether he and his wife would have time together. “Well, now you’re locked into working all those hours,” he said.

Jeff Enos, 40, a high school graduate and a construction foreman in Kenosha, Wis., said he dated several women at a time when he was younger, but having lived through his parents’ divorce, he wants to avoid a similar fate. That is one reason he has cautioned his girlfriend, with whom he lives, not to pressure him about marriage.

Perhaps most significant, many men without college degrees are not marrying because the pool of women in their social circles — those without college degrees — has shrunk. And the dwindling pool of women in this category often look for a mate with more education and hence better financial prospects.

“Men don’t marry because women like myself don’t need to rely on them,” said Shenia Rudolph, 42, a divorced mother from the Bronx.

In 1980, only 6 percent of men in their early 40’s at all levels of education and 5 percent of women in their early 40’s had never married. By 2004, this portion had nearly tripled to 16.5 percent of men and about 12.5 percent of women.

Of the men remaining single, the greatest number are high school dropouts, especially blacks and unemployed men. But marriage is also declining among white men and men with jobs who lack college degrees.

There is no conclusive evidence that marriage helps men. Still, some social scientists worry that not marrying may further marginalize men who are already struggling.

“It is a mistake to think of this as just happening to the underclass at the bottom,” said Christopher Jencks, a professor of sociology at Harvard. “It is also happening to people with high school diplomas or even some college. That is the group that has been most affected by the decline in real wages in the last 30 years.”

The course of Mr. Thomas’s life has been determined as much by his finances as by fate. He is a tall, athletic man who projects a kind and upbeat persona — surely a catch to some women in Fort Collins. Yet Mr. Thomas, who was laid off from Lockheed Martin as the electronics industry shifted jobs overseas, has experienced so much job insecurity that for most of his adult life, a stable economic foundation has eluded him.

It is only now, working for Hewlett-Packard, that he has been able to pay off debts and build a nest egg. The job, however, which pays about $56,000 a year, could end next year, leaving Mr. Thomas, who would like to begin a lower-paying career as a graphic designer, feeling a greater urgency to save.

One way he has cut costs is by giving up his expensive one-bedroom apartment. Two years ago, he rented a room in a town house from Anna Mahoney, a single woman four years his junior. They pool household purchases and buy in bulk. Their platonic friendship serves as a stand-in for their families, who live out of state.

Yet their domesticity has also bred a level of intimacy that can alienate romantic partners. Ms. Mahoney frequently refers to herself and Mr. Thomas as “we.”

“She always says: ‘You’re going to be my roommate forever. Then when I get married, you’re going to live in my basement,’ ” Mr. Thomas said. “I’m like, ‘Pleeease. When you start dating, I’m going to be so out of there.’ ”

When Mr. Thomas fell in love last year and began bringing his girlfriend to the town house, Ms. Mahoney complained that his girlfriend, a 33-year-old dialysis technician, was sloppy. Meanwhile, his girlfriend objected to the time that he spent with Ms. Mahoney, Mr. Thomas said.

“It was a constant form of stress,” he said. The two had discussed moving in together, but the bickering made them wonder if it was a good idea. In February, after one year together, they broke up.

“I miss her horribly,” Mr. Thomas said quietly one recent Saturday after stopping at a health store to buy vitamins on Ms. Mahoney’s shopping list.

Pool of Potential Mates Shrinks

A quarter-century ago, when fewer women went to college, there was a plentiful supply of potential mates for men who had only a high school diploma. Even men who dropped out of high school could get blue-collar jobs paying decent wages and could expect to find, and support, a wife.

As women started climbing the educational ladder, first equaling and then surpassing men in college attendance and graduation rates, the pool of potential partners shrank.

At the same time, broad changes in the roles of men and women upended the traditional marriage contract in which the husband provided a paycheck in return for the wife’s housework and child care.

First, as more women joined the work force, they became less dependent on men’s earnings. More than 70 percent of women ages 25 to 54 are working today, up from about half of such women 30 years ago.

While women were gaining economic independence, wages were slumping in the blue-collar jobs that in the past allowed less-educated men to support a family. Women, largely employed in service industries more resilient than manufacturing, fared better.

Between 1979 and 2003, the earnings of men with a few years of college but no degree barely kept up with inflation, while those for women rose by 20 percent in real terms. For high school graduates with no college experience, men’s earnings declined 8 percent over the period, while women’s advanced 12 percent.

“In the past guys could drop out of school after finishing high school, or even without finishing, and go into a factory and get a steady job with benefits,” said Valerie K. Oppenheimer, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles. “But there has been a deterioration in young men’s economic position, and women are hesitant to marry a man who is likely to be an economic dependent.”

Not all men have adjusted to the new dynamics of marriage and work, as women have gained greater clout and become more vocal about what they want from their mates. By 2001, wives earned more than husbands in almost one of four marriages in which both partners worked, compared with 16 percent in 1980.

“Changing women’s expectations about what married life should be like has put more tension into these relationships,” Mr. Jencks said. “Men who have graduated from college have been more responsive and ready to accommodate those changes than those who haven’t.”

Even though many unmarried men and women do end up living together, cohabitation is a less stable arrangement. There’s a 43 percent chance that a couple living together will split within three years, compared with a 12 percent chance for a breakup of a first marriage in that time. “It’s more like a stopgap,” said Andrew J. Cherlin, a professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University.

In 2005 there were nearly 5 million households of unmarried partners of the opposite sex, according to census estimates, up from 1.6 million in 1980. In 2004, 36 percent of babies were born to unmarried women.

As a response to some of these trends, many women with limited education have turned theirs sights on “marrying up,” choosing men who may be older, more established and more educated.

“Why would you want to be in a stable relationship with somebody who is unstable?” asked Ketny Jean-Francois, a never-married 30-something from the Bronx, who has supported her 3-year-old son on her unemployment check and food stamps since leaving her job as a security guard a year ago. “It’s a myth that all women want to marry.”

Ms. Rudolph, of the Bronx, has sworn off blue-collar men. For a man to be marriage material, “you have to have a job; you have to be educated; you have your own apartment and a car,” she said. “Both have to contribute something.”

She speaks from experience. She married her high school boyfriend right after graduation, a 2-week-old baby in arms. But her husband, who never graduated, was unemployed for most of their marriage, and the couple broke up after six years.

Determined to find a man who had better prospects, Ms. Rudolph entered a relationship with a basketball player and had three children with him. It ended when she learned he was married to someone else, a revelation that left her badly shaken. “I don’t trust men to marry them,” she said.

Tax policy does not encourage poor couples to marry. At the lower end of the income scale, couples with two incomes face higher marginal tax rates if they marry. Couples can also lose federal dollars when marriage increases their household earnings above the threshold for welfare payments.

David Popenoe, a sociologist at Rutgers and a co-director of its National Marriage Project, argues that it is the men who are choosing to remain single. He says men do not marry because they do not want to. As unwilling to commit as ever, men have been let off the hook by more permissive social mores that have made it acceptable to live together and raise children out of wedlock.

Joe Callender, 47, a retired New York City corrections officer and a father of four, has had long-term relationships with two women but has never married. One obstacle, he admits, has been his own infidelity.

“Marriage, that’s sacred to me; I’m committed to you for the rest of my life, my last breath,” Mr. Callender said, describing his vision of the institution. “I’m not cheating, looking. Work, home, that’s it. It’s you and me against the world.”

Fears of Divorce

Relaxed mores have also encouraged more gay men to live openly homosexual lives. “I think this could be a minor factor but not a major one” in the decline of marriage, Professor Cherlin said. But it would not explain the gap between the educated and the less so. The percentage of college-educated men who marry has been relatively stable the last few years, while the marriage rate among college-educated women has actually ticked up.

For some men, living with a girlfriend is an attractive alternative given the possibility of a messy divorce. Many men fear that a former wife will take all their money. For blue-collar men, the divorce rate is twice that of men with college degrees.

“From the view of the male there are pretty big reasons you would not marry,” Professor Popenoe said.

It was his parents’ divorce when he was 16 that showed Mr. Enos, the Wisconsin construction foreman, just how bitter a dissolution could be. Mr. Enos, a compact man with a shock of blond hair and a streak of independence who supported himself in high school by working on a pig farm, rarely saw his father after his parents’ split.

After high school, Mr. Enos joined the Marines. Once his service was complete, he moved back to Kenosha, only to witness another family dispute over his grandfather’s estate. Mr. Enos, who earns about $50,000 a year, lives in a small house bought with some money inherited from his grandfather and keeps his distance from family.

He has vowed not to mix personal and legal affairs. He has worked too hard, he said, to lose his house and his savings if a marriage were to fail. “I told my girlfriend a long time ago: ‘Don’t pressure me. I don’t want to get married and then divorced,’ ” Mr. Enos said.

The same fear has lurked in Tom Ryan’s mind. Mr. Ryan, 54, an electronics specialist who lives outside Denver, bought his ranch house with a girlfriend over a decade ago. He had to buy out his girlfriend quickly when the relationship suddenly ended — or else lose his home.

His girlfriend, who had been with him for six years, had wanted to marry and have a child. But Mr. Ryan, who attended music college for a year and spent his 20’s singing in a local rock band, did not feel ready.

He loved her, he recalled one afternoon this summer, but was reluctant to settle down. After a decade of playing concerts (including a tour in Japan, a highlight), he had learned relatively late in life how to budget and save enough to pay a mortgage, a contributing factor.

Comfortable Being Alone

Mr. Ryan, who grew up without a father, learned how to be alone. A new girlfriend came along, but he was unwilling to let her move in as much as a toothbrush. They broke up. He went back to a community college and got an associate’s degree in electronics. He renovated the basement. He built a soundproof recording room. He learned to enjoy the silence and the ability to be as fastidious at home as he pleased.

When he walks in the front door after a weekend trip or a run or a bike ride, he often puts a commemorative baseball cap on his coat rack. About three dozen hats cover the rack, with no apparent space for a purse or a diaper bag.

“Later in life, will I miss the fact that I don’t have a little son or daughter around?” Mr. Ryan asked. “I probably will. But it’s not totally out of the question.”

For every man who fits into one of the categories of unmarried men put forth by social scientists — men who cannot commit, men who are afraid of divorce, men who have been forced to the edges of the economy — there is a man like Chris Cunningham of Staten Island.

Mr. Cunningham, 41, a sanitation worker, seems to defy any theory about why he is single. He has, he said, simply not met the right woman.

Born and raised in Brooklyn, and now assigned to an office job in Manhattan with the Department of Sanitation, Mr. Cunningham said he was undeterred by his parents’ divorce and was ready for marriage, having just ended a decade-long relationship going nowhere.

He makes a comfortable living at about $80,000 a year. He appears self-deprecating and sweet, and is clean-shaven (his head, too). Eager to have children of his own, he bought Christmas presents last year for several children in Milltown, N.J., where he often spends weekends with his best friend and neighboring couples.

With most of his friends paired off, and few single women in the Milltown clique, his dating life has stalled. “It’s funny,” he said one Saturday as adults mingled and children scampered with water toys at a block party. “You feel kind of like they met someone and got their lives started, and you’re still waiting for it to happen to you.”

Some social scientists have found that married men are healthier and earn slightly more than unmarried men. But it is unclear whether marriage produces higher incomes and better health, or whether people who are richer and healthier in the first place more often choose to marry.

Beyond the questions of finances and health, there is the issue of how content these men are. All the men interviewed for this article looked younger than their age. All said they were happy with their lives, even Mr. Cunningham, with his clear longing for a family of his own, and Mr. Thomas, of Fort Collins, who said he might move to Denver to meet more women.

Mr. Ryan, too, said he enjoyed being single. He stood talking in his kitchen on a Saturday when he had no plans other than a solo bike ride. It was a slow weekend day — his birthday, in fact — and though the phone never rang, he was free for dinner.