What is happening to marriage in Colombia–and around the world?

09.12.2012, 11:14 AM

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.”


16 Responses to “What is happening to marriage in Colombia–and around the world?”

  1. nobody.really says:

    Intriguing!

    Various people – most recently, Charles Murray in his book Coming Apart – argue that the decline of the institution of marriage in the US, and the rise of unwed cohabitation, is the result of US domestic policies. That thesis is undermined by evidence of the same trends occurring in nations that are largely unaffected by those policies.

    Googling “world marriage trends,” I find – well, a lot of stuff circa 2000. Here’s a 2005 working paper from the Population Council’s Policy Research Division entitled “Trends in the Timing of First Marriage Among Men and Women in the Developing World,” looking at data from 1990-2001 supplemented with “current status data” from the United Nations. From the abstract (emphasis added):

    With the exception of South America for both sexes and South and Southeast Asia for men, substantial declines have occurred in the proportion of young men and women who are married. Given the differentials in the timing of marriage by educational attainment and residence, we assess whether the decline in the proportion of young people who are married is related to increases in schooling and urbanization. Expansion of schooling for women has had some impact, but a considerable portion of the reduction in early marriage is not explained by changes in levels of education. We consider other factors that might account for the increase in age at marriage.

    Among the “other factors” that might account for the delay in marriage are –

    the decline in arranged marriages, the deficit of available older men with increasing cohort size and the concomitant rise in the cost of dowries in South Asia, changes in the legal age at marriage, and a transformation in global norms about the desirability of early marriage for women. We noted that a much smaller literature is available on men’s age at marriage. Although their increasing educational attainment is also believed to contribute to marriage delay, we found no evidence of this association for sub-Saharan Africa. We suggested that the increasing costs of establishing a household may lead men to postpone marriage.

    In short, the study suggests that Columbia is not facing an unusual marriage problem. Rather, Columbia is facing a USUAL marriage problem – and, in fact, may be experiencing the marriage decline later than most other nations.

    Admittedly, delayed marriage is not necessarily the same as having kids outside of marriage. Yet we have data from developed nations (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries) suggesting that out-of-wedlock births have increased pretty widely over the years. In 2009, for example, “more than half the kids born in Bulgaria, France, Slovenia, Sweden, Norway, Mexico, Estonia, and Iceland were born out of wedlock. However, commenters remark that unmarried cohabitation in Europe is a more stable phenomenon than unmarried cohabitation in the US, perhaps rendering the issue less salient to Europeans.

    In any event, it becomes increasingly difficult to blame changes in US laws on welfare, divorce, and same-sex marriage for triggering what is evidently a global trend.

  2. Elizabeth Marquardt says:

    That’s a fascinating point. I’ll be thinking on that!

  3. nobody.really says:

    I must acknowledge that not EVERY nation is having more kids out of wedlock, so it may not be literally a GLOBAL trend.

    For example, people in Cyprus, Greece, Japan, and Korea are not having many kids out of wedlock. They’re also not having many kids IN wedlock. If you have a friend from these nations, hang onto him; no one’s making any more.

    I’d like to find examples of nations that are actually reproducing themselves (averaging 2.1 kids per woman) without having lots of kids out of wedlock. Let’s see what causes those nations to buck the larger trend.

  4. La Lubu says:

    Nobdy.really: I finished reading the Charles Murray book a few weeks ago, and his main premise wasn’t that US domestic policy changed marriage practices, but that a change in values changed both US domestic policy and marriage practices. He argues that working-class USians no longer have a good work ethic, do not practice thrift, are less honest, and less religious than middle-class USians and working-class USians of previous generations. His recommended remedies don’t concentrate on policy changes as much as strengthening the informal but more far-reaching institutions that influence worldviews.

    Setting aside the inflammatory classist accusations (he uses bankruptcy as one means of determining dishonesty, for example), I think it’s a losing proposition. People stick with institutions that help them thrive, and abandon institutions that don’t. It’s wrongheaded to claim that the nuclear family was/is the foundational institution of societies. Nuclear families survived because of the support of extended families and strong communities. Without those exterior support systems, nuclear families collapse under the strain of conflicting obligations and/or serious crisis. Charles Murray’s bootstrap “just try harder” recommendations don’t solve any structural weaknesses.

  5. Diane M says:

    This really surprises me. When you don’t have much, it would seem obvious that marrying and staying married would help you survive. EM, did the researchers have much to say on why this has changed?

    LaLubu – so would you strengthen the extended family in order to strengthen the nuclear family? the community? How?

  6. Elizabeth Marquardt says:

    Diane M–I learned a lot, but it was all in Spanish. I can read and understand some Spanish, and the lovely Viviana helped me a great deal with translation, sitting beside me and typing main points on her laptop in English…but I do not feel able to report at the high level of competence that I would like on what other scholars said. I’d rather their work speak for itself. I’ll be posting more links when I have them, and I would also like to invite some scholars who study these trends in Spanish speaking countries to blog here, in Spanish or in English.

    : ) E

  7. La Lubu says:

    Well, the typical human coping response to instability is to stay as flexible as possible; to keep one’s options open. Marriage provides many strengths (working marriages anyway; dysfunctional marriages are a liability), but flexibility is not one of them. It’s a human characteristic to hedge one bets when we perceive the risk ratio is out-of-whack.

    This may sound counterintuitive, but it isn’t necessarily the case that marriage makes a person better off financially. Read “Promises I Can Keep”. From my perspective as a single mother, it’s riskier to be a single parent than to be in an emotionally healthy, two-income marriage (with comparable incomes for both spouses)….but it’s preferable to marrying someone I have to support.

    Look, it’s a lot easier to tear down than to rebuild. But if you want stable nuclear families you have to create the stability first. If I look around me and see that I’m just as likely to end up divorced, why shouldn’t I save myself the trouble and just cohabit instead?

  8. La Lubu says:

    LaLubu – so would you strengthen the extended family in order to strengthen the nuclear family? the community? How?

    Let’s start with full employment. Full employment means being having the ability to choose to live near one’s extended family, which automatically solidifies the safety net. Living hundred of miles away from one’s family means automatically being cut off (logistically) from a prime means of support. Working class and lower middle class people are less geographically mobile than upper middle class people because jobs are harder to find, and their current jobs leave them with a sharp axe above their heads anyway what with layoffs and closures. Full employment means fewer long-distance marriages too (most of which split apart under the strain).

    Let’s continue with recognizing that a greater share of our economy is going to involve service work. So….let’s make service work pay. Instead of low-wage, no-benefit jobs, let’s make service-industry jobs comparable in wages and benefits to the unionized factory jobs of yore. Let’s have a return to the 40-hour workweek, and offer stable working hours for service industry employees so they can have a work/family balance.

    Let’s keep going by making corporations accountable not just to their stockholders, but to their employees and the communities where they create and sell their goods and services.

    When people feel that they’re out on their own, with no support system as backup, they act accordingly. It’s a survival skill. When I know I can’t count on anyone else, I double down on counting on myself. I take fewer risks as a hedge against the risks I can’t avoid.

  9. Diane M says:

    I think marriage can give you some flexibility. I have friends who are going back to school while their spouses support them. I have other friends who work part-time, something they could not do on their own. And a partner who cares for your children can give you more flexibility to work late or travel.

    The main thing that becomes less flexible is your ability to pick up and move. On the other hand, it might sometimes make it easier for you to move somewhere temporarily while your children stay behind with your partner.

    And a spouse can double your support from extended family members. When you’re down on your luck, there are twice as many places you can go stay.

    This all assumes a spouse or partner who is contributing to your family. So jobs are a critical part of strengthening the family. I would add something else about the partner, too. You need to believe that they will take care of you when you are down and that they won’t take advantage of you when they are down.

  10. Diane M says:

    “But if you want stable nuclear families you have to create the stability first. If I look around me and see that I’m just as likely to end up divorced, why shouldn’t I save myself the trouble and just cohabit instead?”

    This is one of the things that discourages me greatly about this whole issue. How can you create that stability? If I look around, I see that I am not actually that likely to get divorced. Most people don’t and for my peer group, it’s even less likely.

    Women in poor communities will probably see something different. They may see the majority of people they know getting divorced. Still, once you assume you are going to break up and therefore don’t make a commitment, you make it more likely that you are going to break up.

    How do you begin to change that? I am not sure that just having decent jobs out there will be enough (although more jobs is always a good thing).

  11. Diane M says:

    I don’t really see the connection between full employment and the extended family. In my experience middle class/upper middle class people are not very likely to live near their extended family. They also have a fair number of commuter marriages.

    I think right now the mobility problem is that the housing market fell at the same time as people losing their jobs. That keeps people from moving until they are homeless and completely desperate. So perhaps doing something about foreclosures would strengthen the family.

  12. Elizabeth Marquardt says:

    Nobody really said “I’d like to find examples of nations that are actually reproducing themselves (averaging 2.1 kids per woman) without having lots of kids out of wedlock. Let’s see what causes those nations to buck the larger trend.”

    What a great question. I’d like to know too.

  13. Diane M says:

    @nobodyreally – here’s an interesting link.

    http://sustaindemographicdividend.org/articles/international-family-indicators/global-childrens-trends

    Some countries where few children are born out of wedlock, but the fertility rate is over 2 per woman are:

    India, Indonesia, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia.

    China might have a higher fertility rate if the government allowed it.

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  16. Viviana says:

    Thank you my dear friend! :) excelent post :) Thank you for sharing the article :)