American social norms surrounding marriage and family structures have undeniably exploded since the 1950s golden age of Ozzie and Harriet-style unions. Over the past five or six decades, the United States has experienced a rapid decline in marriage and an enormous rise in births to unmarried mothers, especially among poorer, less educated Americans. Family sociologists agree that, in general, childbirth outside of marriage objectively increases poverty levels and inequality for children. In her 2014 work Generation Unbound: Drifting into Sex and Parenthood without Marriage,” Isabel Sawhill explores the causes and consequences of these striking changes in the United States’ marriage culture. She presents the reader with several explanations for the societal developments, including economic changes due to deindustrialization and globalization and a general liberalization of norms surrounding sex and marriage. However, unlike her colleagues in the field of family sociology, Sawhill identifies changes in women’s role in society as the overwhelmingly most powerful catalyst in the decline in marriage and increased childbirth to unwed mothers. In turn, Sawhill’s solution to the consequences presented by these developments is also ultimately a feminist one, as she argues that men must accept women’s changing roles and agree to function in a more androgynous union with a non-gendered divison of labor.
Throughout the expository introductory chapters of the book, Sawhill joins the existing dialogue of her contemporaries, including Charles Murray, Bradford Wilcox, and Robert Putnam, to establish a fact agreed upon by all family policy analysts and family sociologists: marriage is objectively the most successful union for stable parenthood, but marriage as an institution is rapidly declining in the lower socio-economic classes in the United States. What the U.S. has developed, in turn, is a cycle of poverty that fosters unstable family structures and unstable family structures that foster poverty. Sawhill’s main impetus to research the topic lies in the welfare of children. Her main argument is that marriage has seen such a rapid decline in recent decades because of the relative social progress women have made and the subsequent change in women’s opportunities and gendered expectations. Sawhill sees these developments as undeniably positive ones; however, progress for women has led to unintended consequences for children, as children have no autonomy over what type of family structure into which they are born, but must suffer any consequences assiociated with an unstable family. Sawhill’s argument develops into a suggested remedy for the future, in which she proposes that the government subsidize long acting reversible contraceptives (LARCs) to drive down the fertility of women drifting into motherhood with little active intention to do so.
Isabel Sawhill works at the Brookings Institution as a senior fellow in Economic Studies. She serves as the co-director of the Center on Children and Families, as well as the president of the board of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. In recent years, she has focused especially on economically disadvantaged children in the United States, though throughout her life her research has examined various economic and social topics. She has extensively researched unplanned pregnancy, the economic consequences unplanned children face, and how the United States can best prevent unintended pregnancy.
Isabel Sawhill lays out her argument with extensive discussion and analysis of empirical, quantitative evidence representing the trends in marriage in twenty-first century America. Along with her contemporaries in the field of family sociology, Sawhill uses statistical evidence to determine that children fare best when they grow up in a household headed by their married parents. Despite marriages’ positive outcomes for children, though, Sawhill tells the reader that “marriage is on the wane,” going so far as to claim that marriage is an “endangered institution” (Sawhill 17-18). The bulk of her research is thus to explain why marriage rates have fallen so drastically; her findings bring her to the conclusion that “the changing status of women is the most important driver of changes in the family” (Sawhill 28). From the advent of the birth control pill, to increased numbers of women in college and the labor force, women have far more opportunities now than they did the so-called golden age of marriage, making them less inclined to marry, especially at a young age.
Sawhill also engages with her contemporary interlocutors by highlighting the growing class divide in family structures between the well-educated upper class and the less-educated lower classes. While women in the less educated, lower socio-economic classes have increasingly forgone marriage, while having children outside of marriage more and more often. However, women of higher socio-economic status are entering into so-called neotraditional marriages, which resemble 1950s-style unions, but are predicated on much greater egalitarianism between the husband and wife. Sawhill suggests several remedies to the negative consequences for children produced from what Sawhill considers unstable family structures. She argues that the U.S. government should subsidize long-acting reversible contraceptives (LARCs) to push down the fertility rates among the lower socio-economic classes in which fertility is high but marriage rates are low. She also supports increases in traditional government welfare programs to provide monetary and medical assistance to those in need.
The greatest strength of Isabel Sawhill’s work, I argue, is her introduction of a new explanation for the divergences in family structures in the United States during the past few decades. Her thesis, arguing that changes in women’s status in American society have been the greatest catalyst for breaking down the traditional family structure of the twentieth century, is an argument relatively untouched by Sawhill’s contemporaries. While family sociologists and policy makers have engaged in debate over the cause of changes in family structures, Sawhill presents a perspective unique from her colleagues by making her argument centered around the cultural shifts that occurred due to feminist movements. This argument strong and logical; the advent of accessible and relatively affordable contraception, the legalization on abortion through Roe v. Wade, no fault divorce, women’s increased presence in higher education institutions and improved status in the work force, etc. have all undeniably shifted marriage norms and structures (Sawhill26-30). She explains the bifurcation between upper and lower economic class families through the lens of gendered norms as well; well-educated, wealthy women are delaying marriage and childbearing while they gain education and profession status, but “at the other end of the economic spectrum, families are falling apart” (37). Sawhill explains this development as a result of lower-income men refusing to approach partnerships and marriage with an egalitarian view of gender.
Arguably Sawhill’s biggest weakness in her text is her explicit call to drive down the fertility rates of the less educated, lower income rungs of American society. Though she provides copious evidence that the instability present in many lower income families harms innocent children, her suggested remedies evoke the disturbing history of eugenics and birth control. Though Planned Parenthood provides undeniable benefits in 2016, and although Margret Sanger is often portrayed as a champion of women’s rights and social progress, we must remember the initial intentions of Planned Parenthood and birth control in general. While Sawhill herself may advocate purely on behalf of blameless children, her call for government-subsidized fertility control of less educated, poorer women threatens the agency of women on the sole basis of their economic status, as well as treading frighteningly close to outright eugenics. While children do unfairly suffer due to their parents decisions, we must always respect the agency and value of people regardless of their education attainment or economic status.
Overall, Isabel Sawhill provides an interesting and important commentary on the developments of marriage norms in the United States, with her predictions for the future and suggested remedies for the negative consequences associated with these changing social norms. The book exists in a field presumably off the radar of the average person, even among the more educated ranks. However, family structures and practices affect the future generation of thinkers, leaders, and influencers of our economy and society, and evidence shows us that the environment in which they are coming of age has a much greater affect on them than we may realize. Because Sawhill’s topic of analysis includes such a broad range of people—that is, all of American society—everyone could benefit from reading her text. I would openly recommend this text, but would explicitly suggest any reader to examine closely her remedies for the future and approach the work with a critical eye.
Sawhill, Isabel V. Generation Unbound: Drifting into Sex and Parenthood without Marriage. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 2014. Print.