Breaking Millennial divorce drop news explained

[With updates as new stories come in.]


Millennials are fun to disparage.

Phones and selfies are all that they cherish.

And what’s par for the course, they have ruined divorce.

‘Cuz Millennials hang on to their ______.

Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, 9/29/18

The divorce paper I posted two weeks ago, “The Coming Divorce Decline,” suddenly took off in the media the other day (blog post | paper | data and code). I’ve now written an op-ed about the findings for The Hill, including this:

I am ambivalent about these trends. Divorce is often painful and difficult, and most people want to avoid it. The vast majority of Americans aspire to a lifelong marriage (or equivalent relationship). So even if it’s a falling slice of the population, I’m not complaining that they’re happy. Still, in an increasingly unequal society and a winner-take-all economy, two-degree couples with lasting marriages may be a buffer for the select few, but they aren’t a solution to our wider problems.

Here’s my media scrapbook, with some comment about open science process at the end.

The story was first reported by Ben Steverman at Bloomberg, who took the time to read the paper, interview me at some length, send the paper to Susan Brown (a key expert on divorce trends) for comment, and produce figures from the data I provided. I was glad that his conclusion focused on the inequality angle from my interpretation:

“One of the reasons for the decline is that the married population is getting older and more highly educated,” Cohen said. Fewer people are getting married, and those who do are the sort of people who are least likely to get divorced, he said. “Marriage is more and more an achievement of status, rather than something that people do regardless of how they’re doing.”

Many poorer and less educated Americans are opting not to get married at all. They’re living together, and often raising kids together, but deciding not to tie the knot. And studies have shown these cohabiting relationships are less stable than they used to be.

Fewer divorces, therefore, aren’t only bad news for matrimonial lawyers but a sign of America’s widening chasm of inequality. Marriage is becoming a more durable, but far more exclusive, institution.

The Bloomberg headline was, “Millennials Are Causing the U.S. Divorce Rate to Plummet.” Which proved irresistible on social media. I didn’t use the terms “millennials” (which I oppose), or “plummet,” but they don’t fundamentally misrepresent the findings.

Naturally, though, the Bloomberg headline led to other people misrepresenting the paper, like Buzzfeed, which wrote, “Well, according to a new study, millennials are now also ‘killing’ divorce.” Neither I nor Bloomberg said anyone was “killing” divorce; that was just a Twitter joke someone made, but Buzzfeed was too metameta to pick up on that. On the other hand, never complain about a Buzzfeed link, and they did link to the paper itself (generating about 800 clicks in a few days).

Then Fox 5 in New York did a Skype interview with me, and hit the bar scene to talk over the results (additional footage courtesy of my daughter, because nowadays you provide your own b-roll):

The next day Today did the story, with additional information and reporting from Bowling Green’s National Center for Family and Marriage Research, and Pew.

The Maryland news office saw the buzz and did their own story, which helped push it out.

An article in Atlantic featured an interview with Andrew Cherlin putting the trends in historical context. Rachelle Hampton in Slate tied the divorce trend to a Brookings report showing marriage is increasingly tied to higher education. On KPCC, AirTalk hosted a discussion with Megan Sweeney and Steven Martin. On Wisconsin Public Radio, Stephanie Coontz widened the discussion to put changes in marriage and divorce in historical perspective.

Rush Limbaugh read from the Bloomberg article, and was just outraged: “Now, who but deranged people would look at it this way?”

How anybody thinks like this… You have to work to be this illogical. I don’t know where this kind of thing comes from, that a plummeting divorce rate is a bad sign for America in the left’s crazy world of inequality and social justice and their quest to make everybody the same. So that’s just an example of the… Folks, that is not… That kind of analysis — and this is a sociology professor at the University of Maryland. This is not stable. That kind of thinking is not… It’s just not normal. Yet there it is, and it’s out there, and it’s be widely reported by the Drive-By Media, probably applauded and supported by others. So where is this coming from? Where is all of this indecency coming from? Why? Why is it so taking over the American left?

The Limbaugh statement might have been behind this voicemail I received from someone who thinks I’m trying to “promote chaos” to “upend the social order”:

I had a much more reasonable discussion about marriage, divorce, and inequality in this interview with Lauren Gilger in KJZZ (Phoenix public radio).

The Chicago Tribune editorial board used the news to urge parents not to rush their children toward marriage:

This waiting trend may disturb older folks who followed a more traditional (rockier?) path and may be secretly, or not so secretly, wondering if there’s something wrong with their progeny. There isn’t. Remember: Unlike previous generations, many younger people have a ready supply of candidates at their fingertips in the era of Tinder and other dating apps. They can just keep swiping right. Our advice for parents impatient to marry off a son or daughter? Relax. The older they get, the less likely you’ll be stuck paying for the wedding.

The Catholic News Agency got an expert to chime in, “If only we could convince maybe more of them to enter into marriage, we’d be doing really well.”

I don’t know how TV or local news work, but somehow this is on a lot of TV stations. Here’s a selection.

Fox Business Network did a pretty thorough job.

Some local stations added their own reporting, like this one in Las Vegas:

And this one in Buffalo:

And this one in Boise, which brought in a therapist who says young people aren’t waiting as long to start couples therapy.

Jeff Waldorf on TYT Nation did an extended commentary, blaming capitalism:


Open science process

Two things about my process here might concern some people.

The first is promoting research that hasn’t been peer reviewed. USA Today was the only report I saw that specifically mentioned the study is not peer reviewed:

The study, which has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal, has been submitted for presentation at the 2019 Population Association of America meeting, an annual conference for demographers and sociologists to present research.

But, when Steverman interviewed me I emphasized to him that it was not peer-reviewed and urged him to consult other researchers before doing the story — he told me he had already sent it to Susan Brown. Having a good reporter consult a top expert who’s read the paper is as good a quality peer review as you often get. I don’t know everything Brown told him, but the quote he used apparently showed her endorsement of the main findings:

“The change among young people is particularly striking,” Susan Brown, a sociology professor at Bowling Green State University, said of Cohen’s results. “The characteristics of young married couples today signal a sustained decline [in divorce rates] in the coming years.”

For the story to be clear enough to become a news event, the research often has to be pretty simple. That’s the case here: what I’m doing is looking at an easily-identified trend and providing my interpretation of it. If this has to be peer-reviewed, then almost anything an academic says should be. Of course, I provided the publicly verifiable data and code, and there are a lot of people with the skills to check this if it concerned them.

On the other hand, there is a lot of research that is impossible to verify that gets reported. Prominent examples include the Alice Goffman ethnographic book and the Raj Chetty et al. analysis of confidential IRS data. These were big news events, but whether they were peer reviewed or not was irrelevant because the peer reviewers had no way to know if the studies were right. My conclusion is that sharing research is the right thing to do, and sharing it with as much supporting material as you can is the responsible way to do it.

The second concern is over the fact that I posted it while it was being considered for inclusion in the Population Association of America meetings. This is similar to posting a paper that is under review at a journal. Conference papers are not reviewed blind, however, so it’s not a problem of disclosing my identity, but maybe generating public pressure on the conference organizers to accept the paper. This happens in many forms with all kinds of open science. I think we need to see hiding research as a very costly choice, one that needs to be carefully justified — rather than the reverse. Putting this in the open is the best way to approach accountability. Now the work of the conference organizers, whose names are listed in the call for papers, can be judged fairly. And my behavior toward the organizers if they reject it can also be scrutinized and criticized.

Although I would love to have the paper in the conference, in this case I don’t need this paper to be accepted by PAA, as it has already gotten way more attention than I ever expected. PAA organizers have a tough job and often have to reject a lot of papers for reasons of thematic fit as well as quality. I won’t complain or hold any grudges if it gets rejected. There’s a lot of really good demography out there, and this paper is pretty rudimentary.

3 Comments

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3 responses to “Breaking Millennial divorce drop news explained

  1. This insight around delay — with regard to both marriage and parenthood — within a scene of changing life options, was the basis of my argument in Ready: Why Women Are Embracing the New Later Motherhood (Basic Books, 2007/2012-https://tinyurl.com/ReadyWhy).
    Nowadays, if people don’t want to marry or to have kids, or don’t feel ready to do so, they don’t have to. That reduces the set of people who regret the situation later. Many of the women I interviewed reiterated the point.
    Many had seen mothers stuck in marriages they couldn’t afford to leave, and were determined to have the earning ability to support their kids on their own if needed, so they invested in their education before marriage and kids. And several found that because they didn’t have to stay in their marriages, the power dynamic in the couple was more equal, no one was bullied or beaten (see Pepper Schwartz on Peer Marriage) — and therefore they didn’t want to leave. More peer marriages, fewer divorces.
    While delay is in some respects an “elite” effect (involving people who start out in a relatively high class or education position), it can also be a class elevator, since many women, who would otherwise not have been able to, use the time to complete their educations and establish at work. Which means it has the effect of expanding the set of the relatively well to do. This applies both to women who delay and then marry, and to those who delay and then do not marry.
    So this analysis could interestingly expand beyond the set of those married/not divorced (not the only positive condition) to look at the satisfaction status of people (male and female) over, say 40. You’d need to find an indicator parallel to “not divorced” but more broadly applicable.

    Like

  2. Pingback: Predicted divorce decline rolls on | Family Inequality

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