I recently returned from a stimulating trip to Bogota, Colombia, where I was invited to be a speaker at an international congress on marriage and families hosted by the Institute of the Family at Universidad de la Sabana.
Over two days of presentations and panels, conversations over dinner, some quick sightseeing (see here, here, and here), and meetings with journalists at El Tiempo and Credencial, again and again I heard the question, why are young people not interested in marriage? “Unions libres” (cohabiting relationships) are on the rise as young people are getting married later or not at all, similar to trends we are seeing in other nations. The young are saying “sí a la familia, pero no al matrimonio.” Presenters from Spain acknowledged similar trends. Even the customs official as I returned to the United States and explained that I’d been attending a conference on the family in Bogota asked me, “So were you guys talking about why people aren’t getting married anymore?” I said with surprise, yes. A late twenty-something looking young man, he nodded with apparent resignation.
At the conference, one presenter from Universidad de la Sabana, Andres Salazar, shared findings from “The Sustainable Demographic Dividend,” a project based at the Social Trends Institute in Spain that brought together an international working group of leaders from universities and think tanks in Spain, Colombia, Canada, Chile, and Peru, as well as the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, led by FamilyScholars blogger Brad Wilcox. (That report, in English and Spanish, is available here.)
Amid the conversations, I was reminded often of my mentor Don Browning’s important book, Marriage and Modernization, which asked, in part, what would happen when trends in widespread divorce and out of wedlock childbearing spread from the relatively affluent west to developing nations whose populations are already challenged by so many other forms of instability, including economic and environmental challenges and too often war, social upheaval, migration of displaced persons, or disruption arising from the activity of international drug, weapon, or crime networks.
I was also thinking how limiting our analysis to national borders is both necessary and misleading. Sadly, more than ever, national borders define us (nowhere was this more apparent to me than when I sailed through customs and immigration in Miami with my US passport while most people on my flight from Bogota were stopped at multiple points), and yet the influences and tensions of values, social change, popular culture, and economic stress and opportunity transcend boundaries. Why marriage is disappearing in middle America may well have something to do with why marriage is disappearing in Colombia. Just as my city of Chicago, here in the heartland of America, is one of the largest Spanish-speaking cities in the world, so the stresses and trends faced by young people and couples in the broad middle of America may have more to do with, for example, those faced by young people in Cali or Bogota or Medellin than we might think.
For now, I treasure the brief opportunity I had to visit this beautiful place, to make new friends, and to be challenged by questions that I hope will lead to fresh ways of thinking in the months and years to come.
Oh, and p.s.: my special new friend Viviana Lucia Aya Gomez, a graduate of Universidad de la Sabana who recently worked at the Beach Center on Disability at the University of Kansas, shared this wonderful article with me which I encourage you to read as well: “Why you should ignore everything you’ve heard and go to Colombia.”