The All-or-Nothing Marriage is Like the All-or-Nothing Job

Since the middle of last month, I’ve been nearly fixated on a pre-research article by Northwestern’s Eli Finkel on the All-or-Nothing Marriage. Although I’ve been out of the marriage counseling business for forty years, I found the ideas and conclusions fascinating—but both delighting and discomforting. While skimming through the article just this week, I began to see a recurring pattern and wondered whether it applied to situations other than marriage. My answer is a big YES. What’s true about marriage today is also true about jobs. And that, too, is both delighting and discomforting.

Finkel and his colleagues ask the question whether marriages today are better or worse than they used to be. As he indicates, the question is usually answered in one of two ways. The marital decline camp says that marriage has weakened. Higher divorce rates are indicative of a harmful lack of commitment and a decline of moral character.

That phrase “a decline of moral character” was an interesting reminder. It’s the same term that Charles Murray and William Bennett have used to sell the wrong-headed idea that the moral decline of many in the middle and lower-classes is the cause of the inequality our nation faces today.

But Finkel also rehearses the other side of the marriage question, reminding us of a different interpretation of the divorce rates. Though the marriage resilience camp, he writes, has experienced disruptive changes, they are a sign that marriage has evolved to better respect “individual autonomy, particularly for women. The true harm, by these lights, would have been for marriage to remain as confining as it was half a century ago.”

What you have here are two conflicting interpretations of what’s happening in marriages, both emphasized by the marriage and divorce statistics.

A more accurate interpretation
To get a better understanding of what’s going on in marriage, Finkel immersed himself in studies of marriage. He moved beyond the psychological and looked closely at the work of sociologists, economists and historians, finding a third interpretation. His studies revealed a striking paradox. The answer to whether marriages are better or worse is “both.”

In sum, mediocre marriages are worse than they were prior to the 1970s and good marriages are better than they were prior to the 1970s. To understand his thinking, you’ll want to read his brief NYTimes article.

Do jobs have the same trajectory as marriage?
My hunch, in Peter Drucker fashion—lacking real research, but built on observation and reasoning, is that since the 1980’s jobs have followed the same trajectory for a number of reasons, including Finkel’s thinking.

Mediocre jobs are definitely worse than they were prior to the 1980s, but good jobs are definitely better than they were prior to the 1980s. One of the insights that my 60 years of work life has given me, growing up in Detroit and consulting for 30 years from California to New York and Latin America, is that work has changed. And it has changed drastically. Those changes have only become fully obvious since the Great Recession of the last seven or eight years.

My reasoning for using the 1980s as breakpoint rather than the 1970s is that I date the beginning of the knowledge explosion—the information age–and the ending of the industrial age at that point.

It’s widely understood that the pervasiveness of technology has flattened organizational hierarchies, spread responsibility, decision making and strategy all the way down to the bottom and given power to everyone with technological expertise. Employees and leaders with an education that often includes graduate school are having a heyday. Many of them love their jobs with the creativity, the freedom, the potential for learning and fulfillment. They’ve pushed the notion of “live to work” to the extreme.

What’s obvious, too, is that if you’re able to look back prior to the 1980s, good jobs rarely created the excitement of today. Though many professionals made good money, far fewer were the be-all, end-all they seem to be today.

But Finkel’s insights about marriage since the 1970s also apply to those with good jobs. Since the late 1960s we’ve been living in the era of the “self-expressive marriage.” As Finkel writes, Americans now look to marriage increasingly for self-discovery, self-esteem and personal growth. Fueled by the countercultural currents of the 1960s, they have come to view marriage less as an essential institution and more as an elective means of achieving personal fulfillment.

The approach to jobs as a means of achieving personal fulfillment began to take hold in business during the early 1980s along with the explosion of technology and knowledge. And the consequence is that what were once good jobs are often great jobs for more and more people.

Disturbing facts
But Finkel also points out that while divorce increased at similar rates for both the wealthy and the poor into the 1970s, those rates diverged sharply after that. Among Americans who married between 1975 and 1979, the 10-year divorce rate was 28 percent among people without a high school education and 18 percent among people with at least a college degree: a 10 percentage point difference. But among Americans who married between 1990 and 1994, the parallel divorce rates were 46 percent and 16 percent: an astonishing 30 percentage point difference.

The issue is not that the poor fail to appreciate the importance of marriage or even that they’re morally inferior. The problem is that the problems exacerbating inequality since 1980 make it exceedingly difficult for less wealthy Americans to invest in a strong marital bond. Mediocre marriages have become worse.

The recent comment by one sociologist rings truer than we’d want to believe: marriage is becoming an upper-middle class activity.

What’s happening to mediocre marriages is also happening in mediocre jobs. Middle class jobs are disappearing. Those $15 to $20 dollar an hour jobs with health care, some pension and security have become multiple part-time jobs with none of the above and pay at $7 an hour.

Mediocre jobs like mediocre marriages have become worse.

Socioeconomic circumstances and government policy
The bad news is that our socioeconomic circumstances, including the broken contract between employers and employees, along with terrible government policies forcing individual choice, undermine the investments that can enhance mediocre marriages and mediocre jobs. Even The Economist, that paragon of economic conservatism, argues that the incentives for politicians are changing. The boom that created a new class of tycoon has also created its nemesis, a new, educated, urban, taxpaying middle class that is pushing for change. This frustrating, policy driven situation causing marriage and job suffering is something that “autocrats and elected leaders ignore at their peril.”   

It’s time for the causes of all-or-nothing marriages and all-or-nothing jobs to come to an end. And, actually, that’s a real possibility for government policy—the key culprit in both marriage and jobs.

Flickr photo: Fikra 


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