I wish I could say I finished Kate Bolick’s superlong Atlantic article on reaching middle age as an uneasily unmarried woman, but I didn’t. It was way, way too rambly. Nevertheless, I highly recommend diving in and sticking with it as long as you can, because it raises a number of challenging questions about the way we live today.

Bolick is 39, educated, professionally accomplished, sexually free, economically secure (or so it appears). She is, in short, a beneficiary of all the gains of late 20th century feminism. And yet, and yet … she finds herself unhappy and unsettled about her unmarried state, and sounding regretful about the choices she made, or failed to make. She surveys the social landscape, and draws some provocative conclusions. Here is The Atlantic’s summary of her article:

Recent years have seen an explosion of male joblessness and a steep decline in men’s life prospects that have disrupted the “romantic market” in ways that narrow a marriage-minded woman’s options: increasingly, her choice is between deadbeats (whose numbers are rising) and playboys (whose power is growing). But this strange state of affairs also presents an opportunity: as the economy evolves, it’s time to embrace new ideas about romance and family—and to acknowledge the end of “traditional” marriage as society’s highest ideal.

Excerpts and discussion below the jump…

This is classic:

Today I am 39, with too many ex-boyfriends to count and, I am told, two grim-seeming options to face down: either stay single or settle for a “good enough” mate. At this point, certainly, falling in love and getting married may be less a matter of choice than a stroke of wild great luck. A decade ago, luck didn’t even cross my mind. I’d been in love before, and I’d be in love again. This wasn’t hubris so much as naïveté; I’d had serious, long-term boyfriends since my freshman year of high school, and simply couldn’t envision my life any differently.

Well, there was a lot I didn’t know 10 years ago. The decision to end a stable relationship for abstract rather than concrete reasons (“something was missing”), I see now, is in keeping with a post-Boomer ideology that values emotional fulfillment above all else. And the elevation of independence over coupling (“I wasn’t ready to settle down”) is a second-wave feminist idea I’d acquired from my mother, who had embraced it, in part, I suspect, to correct for her own choices.

She made a hash of her own marriage prospects because she believed in the emotivist, consumerist idea that maintaining autonomy and maximal choice was critical to the good life. It is inconceivable to many Americans today that true freedom comes through limiting your freedom by committing to a worthwhile discipline, which entails self-giving and self-denial. It is a paradox of life, one recognized by Christianity, that by giving up your life, you gain it — but only, of course, if you give it up for something worth the sacrifice. In a way, Bolick is a more sophisticated version of JD Samson, the lesbian punk rocker I wrote about the other day who penned the HuffPo essay howling against the unfairness of life because she took advantage of her liberty to live exactly as she wanted to, and failed to get rich by so doing. Have cake and eat too juvenilia.

But if the point of Bolick’s essay was simply to flirt with buyer’s remorse, it would hardly be worth noting. Here is the gist:

What my mother could envision was a future in which I made my own choices. I don’t think either of us could have predicted what happens when you multiply that sense of agency by an entire generation.

But what transpired next lay well beyond the powers of everybody’s imagination: as women have climbed ever higher, men have been falling behind. We’ve arrived at the top of the staircase, finally ready to start our lives, only to discover a cavernous room at the tail end of a party, most of the men gone already, some having never shown up—and those who remain are leering by the cheese table, or are, you know, the ones you don’t want to go out with.

Bolick goes on to discuss how social, technological, and economic changes over the past few decades have dramatically worsened the prospects for male success and stability. “No one has been hurt more by the arrival of the post-industrial economy than the stubbornly large pool of men without higher education,” Bolick writes, then explains what she means. Then:

But while the rise of women has been good for everyone, the decline of males has obviously been bad news for men—and bad news for marriage. For all the changes the institution has undergone, American women as a whole have never been confronted with such a radically shrinking pool of what are traditionally considered to be “marriageable” men—those who are better educated and earn more than they do. So women are now contending with what we might call the new scarcity. Even as women have seen their range of options broaden in recent years—for instance, expanding the kind of men it’s culturally acceptable to be with, and making it okay not to marry at all—the new scarcity disrupts what economists call the “marriage market” in a way that in fact narrows the available choices, making a good man harder to find than ever. At the rate things are going, the next generation’s pool of good men will be significantly smaller. What does this portend for the future of the American family?

Bolick goes on to discuss historical instances of “crises in gender” that radically reshape marriage and relations between the sexes. War is the usual factor here — Bolick writes about how the deaths of so many men (especially Southern men) in the civil war, and the death of so many Russian men in World War II, had dramatic sociological effects. Did you know that the marriageable male shortage in Siberia today is so severe that some women are petitioning the Russian government to legalize polygamy? I had no idea. Reading this stuff, I realize how insufficiently aware I am of how much economics affects the way we understand marriage and its function.

Anyway, for reasons Bolick goes into in some detail, we’ve arrived at a socioeconomic situation in contemporary America that disadvantages women who want to marry:

If dating and mating is in fact a marketplace—and of course it is—today we’re contending with a new “dating gap,” where marriage-minded women are increasingly confronted with either deadbeats or players. For evidence, we don’t need to look to the past, or abroad—we have two examples right in front of us: the African American community, and the college campus.

This is really interesting:

In his book, Is Marriage for White People?, Ralph Richard Banks, a law professor at Stanford, argues that the black experience of the past half century is a harbinger for society at large. “When you’re writing about black people, white people may assume it’s unconnected to them,” he told me when I got him on the phone. It might seem easy to dismiss Banks’s theory that what holds for blacks may hold for nonblacks, if only because no other group has endured such a long history of racism, and racism begets singular ills. But the reality is that what’s happened to the black family is already beginning to happen to the white family. In 1950, 64 percent of African American women were married—roughly the same percentage as white women. By 1965, African American marriage rates had declined precipitously, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan was famously declaring black families a “tangle of pathology.” Black marriage rates have fallen drastically in the years since—but then, so have white marriage rates. In 1965, when Moynihan wrote with such concern about the African American family, fewer than 25 percent of black children were born out of wedlock; in 2011, considerably more than 25 percent of white children are.

This erosion of traditional marriage and family structure has played out most dramatically among low-income groups, both black and white. According to the sociologist William Julius Wilson, inner-city black men struggled badly in the 1970s, as manufacturing plants shut down or moved to distant suburbs. These men naturally resented their downward mobility, and had trouble making the switch to service jobs requiring a very different style of self-presentation. The joblessness and economic insecurity that resulted created a host of problems, and made many men altogether unmarriable. Today, as manufacturing jobs disappear nationwide (American manufacturing shed about a third of its jobs during the first decade of this century), the same phenomenon may be under way, but on a much larger scale.

Just as the decline of marriage in the black underclass augured the decline of marriage in the white underclass, the decline of marriage in the black middle class has prefigured the decline of marriage in the white middle class.

And on college campuses?

The early 1990s witnessed the dawn of “hookup culture” at universities, as colleges stopped acting in loco parentis, and undergraduates, heady with freedom, started throwing themselves into a frenzy of one-night stands. Depending on whom you ask, this has either liberated young women from being ashamed of their sexual urges, or forced them into a promiscuity they didn’t ask for. Young men, apparently, couldn’t be happier.

So much for marriage and traditional morality civilizing men by compelling them to channel their natural urge toward sexual promiscuity into socially beneficial ends. Throw out traditional morality for an ethic of libertinism and you get men being what biology has programmed them to be. In this way, feminism, whatever its benefits for women, has hurt them.

OK, so in writing this blog, I did finish the long essay. Bolick ends up saying that given that the single life is bound to be the fate of many women today, we need to come up with emotionally fulfilling, socially beneficial ways for them to live together. Her suggestion of an abandoned McMansion mating colony for sexually needy women is crazy, but the example of the Begijnhof, a medieval Dutch women’s colony that still exists today in the heart of Amsterdam (I’ve been there several times, and lit candles in its Catholic chapel; there is also a Protestant church inside the enclosure that was the house of worship of some of the pre-Mayflower Pilgrims), is intriguing, and worth exploring.

If you’d like to read Bolick’s essay in its entirety, here you go. I need to think about what the sorts of things Bolick writes about tells me about raising my own children, and preparing them for the world as it is — and, to be precise, preparing them to thrive in a world that makes it harder to live by the values related to marriage and family that conservative Christians like us recognize as Good.

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