Divorce, American Style

Everyone knows that marriage is not an easy undertaking…but that’s not stopping Americans from trying (and failing miserably). In their book, The Coming Generational Storm (The MIT Press), Scott Burns and Laurence Kotlikoff examine just how difficult marriage really is…

Modern weddings can be disorienting. At one wedding not many years ago, a reporter watched the bride and groom exchange vows in a Catholic and deeply death-do-us-part ceremony. Nothing in their family histories, however, offered encouragement. The mother of the bride, who had been divorced from the father for many years, was unaccompanied. The father of the bride brought his most recent girlfriend. The bride’s brother arrived with his wife. Her parents had divorced many years earlier. The father of the groom, who had remarried, arrived with his second wife. The mother of the groom, who had also remarried after divorcing the groom’s father, arrived with her new husband. He brought his two sons by his first marriage. The groom’s sister, who had married a few months earlier, brought her husband. His parents were also divorced.

While this may sound like the basic ingredients for a play that combines Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Three Weddings and a Funeral, it is, in fact, fairly typical of conjugal gatherings in America. Small wonder that people like to quote Rita Rudner: "When I meet a man I ask myself: Is this the man I want my children to spend their weekends with?"

While no one ever said marriage was easy, it seems to be particularly difficult in the United States, a reality with long-term consequences as we become an older country. Many Americans now live in familial isolation, an isolation that will worsen as they age.

Is our situation extreme?

The Coming Generational Storm: The Bronze Medal in the Divorce Olympics

Very. In the divorce Olympics, we win the bronze medal. With 4.34 divorces per thousand inhabitants per year, we trail only Maldives (10.97) and Belarus (4.63). While it is unlikely we’ll ever capture the gold (given the Maldives record), we’re positioned to move up to silver and unlikely to be challenged by any of the also-rans. Cuba, which placed fourth at 3.72 divorces per 1,000 inhabitants per year, is well behind us. So are Estonia (3.65), Panama (3.61), and Puerto Rico (3.61).

Compared to other industrialized nations, we’re the Demolition Derby; they’re the Grand Prix of Monaco. The divorce rate in Sweden, once reported to be the home of free love, is 2.4 per thousand inhabitants. That’s only a tad lower than the 2.6 rate for Great Britain. Germany scores a modest 2.3, France 2.0, and Italy a mere 0.6. In Japan the rate is 2.3. Barring some major change, marriage will continue to be nearly twice as difficult in the United States as in the rest of the industrialized world.

Indeed, examining the statistics of marriage, we could easily conclude that marriage in America is much like Thomas Hobbes’s description of preindustrial life-"nasty, brutish, and short."

Knowledge of the difficulty of marriage doesn’t keep us from trying. At one time or another in our lives, usually sooner than later, about 95 percent of us try matrimony. Some keep trying with a second and third marriage. Only 1 percent of us, however, are game for four or more marriages.

The most recent complete examination of our mating habits was published in 2002 based on data collected from several very large surveys in 1995. Romantically titled Cohabitation, Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage in the United States, it tells us how everything from race to generalized anxiety disorder affects the odds a marriage will survive. On first marriages, it notes they are "less likely to break up, and more likely to succeed, if the wife grew up in a two-parent home, is Asian, was 20 years of age or over at marriage, did not have any children when she got married, is college-educated, has more income, or has any religious affiliation."

For women between 15 and 44 years of age in 1995, half of all first marriages were likely to fail by the twenty-second year.

The same study also shows the flux of marital status as women age and the enduring drive to live as couples At age 20 to 24, for instance, 11.2 percent of women are cohabitating, 56.1 percent have never been married, 5.5 percent are "formerly married," and 27.2 percent are married. Twenty years later, by age 40 to 44, cohabitation has declined to 4.1 percent, only 8.8 percent have never been married, 18.1 percent are formerly married, and 68.6 percent are married. The positive story here is that if marriage is a major social goal, more than two-thirds of all women eventually succeed. The other figures simply show that it isn’t easy. (Sadly, the study offers no information at all on women over age 44.)

While it is commonly observed that it is the destiny of most women to live alone late in their lives, these figures make it clear that a substantial minority of women live without a significant other most of their lives: nearly 27 percent of women 40 to 44 had either never married or were formerly married. This means a substantial minority of women doesn’t have the economic or health benefits of marriage. They are likely to enter their old age in a more vulnerable position than those who are married.

The Coming Generational Storm: The Recent Decline in Marital Success

Unfortunately, these figures don’t show the decline in marital success for women who came of age more recently. Another study, which analyzes marriages by year in which the marriage occurred, shows that women who first married in 1945 to 1949 had a 95 percent chance of reaching their fifth anniversary and a 90 percent chance of reaching their tenth anniversary. The marital longevity figures decline year by year. Women who first married in 1980 to 1984, for instance, had only an 86 percent of reaching their fifth anniversary and a 73 percent chance of reaching their tenth anniversary.

The study also examines the marital status of women over the entire life cycle, revealing that widowhood supplants divorce after age 60. Examined by age group, we learn that women are most likely to be in a marriage from the age of 30 through 59. In that period roughly two thirds are married. Before age 30 women are looking for mates (sometimes a second or third mate). At 60 and older, raw mortality struts on stage. The higher mortality rate of men begins to expose an increasing number of women to living alone. At 60 and older, 54.5 percent of women are currently widowed, and 58.3 percent have been widowed at one time.

The corresponding figures for men are dramatically lower: only 18.6 percent are currently widowed at 70 and older and only 25.1 percent have ever been widowed. If we look from the other side, 73.9 percent of men 70 and older have married only once, 55.5 percent are still married to the same woman, and 71.3 percent are currently married, though some have married three times to get there.

Will these figures hold? We doubt it. Divorce is more accepted, more common, and much easier today than it was in 1950, 1960, or 1970.

Dividing all women into different age groups tells us how each age group is doing now. It tells us much less about how they will be doing in the future. We can’t, for instance, blithely assume that women now ages 30 to 34 will age forty years and simply replace the current group of 70-and-older women. There are several reasons for this, but we’ll name just the big ones. The first is a pure numbers game: higher divorce rates for everyone and lower death rates for women. Like a morbid game of musical chairs from which male "chairs" are removed in increasing numbers, some women will simply lose their "place." Raw mortality will make replacement impossible. There is a reason women outnumber men in nursing homes: men don’t live long enough to get there.

The second reason has to do with choice. Fifty years ago, marriage was a social and material necessity for women. Today, glass ceilings notwithstanding, an increasing proportion of all women earn more than their husbands. With more women earning undergraduate degrees than men, that proportion is likely to increase. Indeed, men of all colors could become the "super masculine menials" that Eldridge Cleaver described long ago.

For women today, marriage is a social choice and a material convenience. In the poker game of life, it no longer takes "a pair or better" to open.

What does this mean for the elderly of the future? Their only noninstitutional source of help and support in their old age, whether it is physical or financial, may be their children-if they have any. As we’ve already seen, the supply of children-and the working adults they become-is shrinking.


Scott Burns and Laurence J. Kotlikoff
for The Daily Reckoning

March 30, 2005 — Baltimore, Maryland

The above essay was taken from the book, The Coming Generational Storm: What You Need to Know about America’s Economic Future (The MIT Press, 2004), written by Scott Burns and Laurence Kotlikoff.

Scott Burns is one of the five most widely read financial writers in the country. His career as a newspaper columnist began in 1977 at the Boston Herald, where he was also the financial editor and he joined the Dallas Morning News as a personal finance columnist in 1985.

Laurence Kotlikoff is Professor and Chairman of the Department of Economics at Boston University and Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. Kotlikoff is a highly regarded author and one of the nation’s leading experts on fiscal policy, national saving, and personal finance.

It’s all sex and lies.

Everything. The debt bubble. The real estate bubble. The trade deficit bubble.

Why is there a $600 billion trade deficit? Because Americans want to buy things they can’t afford. Why do they buy things they can’t afford? To pretend to be richer than they are. Why do they want to be appear richer than they are? Because it gives them higher social status. Why do they want higher about social status? So they will have better access to the opposite sex.

We are back in the United States after an absence of several months. Suddenly, the roads are crowded with Hummers. Why would anyone want to drive around in a big, awkward, ugly, expensive car when a small, cheap one would get him where he was going just as well? Because they want to "maximize their inclusive fitness" say scientists. They want as many of their genes floating around the gene pool as possible. The Hummer is like long, bright tail feathers on a bird. Or a big rack of antlers on a deer. From a utilitarian point of view, they are worthless. Worse than worthless, as a matter of fact. They increase the risk that rivals and predators will notice the animal. They take energy to carry around. And they slow the animal down, making it hard for him to maneuver in a fight or to get away.

The huge cars are only useful, near as anyone who thinks about such matters can figure, as conspicuous consumption; they wink to the opposite sex that the animal is game for a little hanky-panky. If he can carry around all that extra baggage and still survive, he must be tough. So, too, if a person can live in a McMansion and drive a Hummer without going bankrupt, he must be a good prospect for a date.

But it’s all relative. If everybody on the block buys a Hummer and puts in a swimming pool, the man who has those things already loses his edge. He has to spend even more – bringing himself even closer to bankruptcy – in order to show off. What can he do? Write poetry and put a feminist bumper sticker on his old Hummer?

"Forget sensitivity," said a woman over dinner last night. "The man must show that he’s capable…that he’s strong…that he knows what he’s doing."

"Yeah," said a divorced friend who has been studying dating strategies, "you have to be ‘the man with the plan.’ You signal to the woman that you’ve got it figured out…that your time is valuable…and that, if she wants to hook up with you, she can to so, but only on your terms. What you don’t want to do is to take her out on a date and spend a lot of money on her. You have to show that you have a lot of money, but you don’t want to give her the impression that she’ll be in charge of how it is spent. That would start the relationship off on the wrong foot."

Women aren’t stupid, of course. They know you can move into a McMansion with no money down and no money anywhere else. They know you can lease a Hummer and buy an Armani suit with credit cards. They try to find out if the man really has money or not. It is the beginning of the battle between the sexes. The man tries to deceive the woman about his fitness for procreation. The woman tries to detect the deception, while deceiving him – with make-up and various artifices – about her own attractiveness. The poor man has to show more and more evidence that he’s really the one with the large rack and the bright feathers. He has to take on more and more expensive burdens. Second and third houses…European vacations…a home theatre…cosmetic surgery. The schmuck needs to spend, spend, spend – or he’s going to be spending his nights alone.

You might say that a "smart" woman would see her way through the foolishness of it all and prefer a man with no desire to show off – maybe a good, solid schoolteacher who cares about the environment and drives an old Pinto. But if she mates with such a man, she dooms her offspring, say the scientists, for the man is likely to father sons much like himself – men who are only attractive to smart women. How many of them are there? Her own genes will find fewer opportunities for reproductive success, in other words…and what’s so smart about that?

In order to spread her genes as widely as possible, a woman needs offspring, particularly males, who are "high ranking," – that is, those who can carry around gaudy expenses without going broke. Her best strategy is to make with a high ranking male. Her good fortune would be to have many sons with him – high ranking boys who would find many mates of their own. And for that she must make herself as desirable to him as possible. This, too, begins with deception and often ends in disappointment. She must spend much of her time and money as though she were a candidate for public office – that is, deceiving people about what she is. The scientists call it "impression management." She must appear high ranking – by wearing expensive clothes instead of cheap ones…by driving an expensive car, rather than a cheap one…by living at an expensive address…eating in expensive restaurants…going on expensive vacations and sporting expensive jewelry. She must also appear as physically attractive as possible. Remember, it’s all about sex.

Meanwhile, driven by these ancient impulses to sexual reproduction…and chauffeured by the Fed…Americans arrive at the cusp of bankruptcy. (More on this below…)

More news, from our team at The Rude Awakening…


Tom Dyson, reporting from Baltimore:

"Japanese real estate prices may be bottoming out after many years in decline. We sought out an expert’s opinion on the matter. Plus, don’t miss the world’s richest poker game, the winner takes home $80 million…"


Bill Bonner, with more ideas of various sorts…

*** You only have to get in a cab to realize that the real estate boom has become a bubble. Cab drivers will point out how much houses have gone up. While once they gave tips on tech stocks, now they tell you which neighborhoods are likely to experience the greatest price inflation. Listen carefully, and you are likely to overhear them on their cell phones – talking to real estate agents about their new condos.

House prices have risen 40% in the last four years. This increased household net worth by about $6 trillion. In many areas, the price increases are accelerating. Nationwide, house prices rose 12.5% in 2004 – adding approximately another $2 trillion to homeowners’ next worth.

But there are signs that the trend is nearing an end. The buyers have added so many feathers…and so much new "wood" to their antlers…they can barely move. Rental vacancies have reached 10% – a record high. This has cut rental income to the point where the P/E of houses – average selling price/12 mo. rental income – has risen to 34, which is higher than the P/E of stocks at the bubble peak in 2000. Another way to look at it is that rental income averaged about 5% of house prices in the 1990s. Now, they have dropped to 3.5%.

Pity the poor renter. He might just as well drive an old economy car and buy his clothes at the Goodwill. He is the sort of man you wouldn’t want your daughter to date, let alone to marry. He is the poor loser who forgot to buy tech stocks in the late ’90s…and now he is missing the real estate bubble too. He is the quiet, lonely dork who never gets invited to parties…and has nothing to say…except an, "I told you so" he is has been holding onto for years…waiting for the right moment.

But, his time will come.

*** "It seems almost cruel," continued our friend over dinner. "The way it works. You spend all your life trying to accumulate as much stuff as possible so you can impress the ladies with it. And by then, you’re so old and broken down that you barely care. But thank God, for modern technology. Those little blue pills really do work…or so they say."

*** A reader comment:

"About ten years or so ago, Wal-Mart was advertising ‘Made in America by Americans’ or something to that effect. But now it should read, ‘Made in China by Chinese.’ For the trinket peddlers, such as Wal-Mart, the money begins in China. To hell with the Americans who made the stuff before. When it comes to greed, our Corporate America stands second to none, regardless of what effect it has on the long term viability of this country."

*** "You’d better talk to Jules," said a voice on the telephone yesterday. "He just got rejected by one of the colleges he applied to; he feels pretty bad."

"But he didn’t want to go to that college anyway," we replied.

"Yes, but it still feels like a setback to him. He feels like a failure."


"Jules, I understand you didn’t get in…"


"But you didn’t want to go there anywhere…"

"I know…but I wanted to know that I could get in…I wanted to be accepted…"

"But you’ve already been accepted at two other places…"

"Yeah, but they’re not as prestigious…"

"Well…I don’t know… but I’m sure they’re just as good…probably better…"

"Maybe, but it still would have been nice to be accepted at a really top school…"

"Don’t worry about it, Jules. They get thousands of applicants. They can’t tell which of them will be good students. So, it’s probably rather arbitrary and random. Don’t take it personally. Remember…you can’t worry about the outcome. You can’t control the outcome. All you can do is to do your best. If you do that, you’ve got no reason to worry or feel bad. Besides, worse schools than that have rejected me…


"And you can always come to work in the family business…"

"That’s what I’m worried about…"

The Daily Reckoning