Elizabeth Taylor’s jewels were auctioned this month for an astonishing $116 million, easily a record for a single collection. Taylor’s talent for amassing jewelry was equaled only by her ability to accumulate husbands. There were eight marriages in all – two of them to Richard Burton, who bought her a 33-carat diamond ring that was auctioned for $8.8 million.
Meanwhile, the nonprofit Pew Research Center recently reported that only 51 percent of American adults are married – a record low. In 1960 – the year Taylor starred in “Butterfield 8,” for which she won an Academy Award – 72 percent of American adults lived in matrimony.
What do Taylor’s jewelry and the declining state of matrimony have to do with each other? Both testify to the importance of male income in sustaining the institution of matrimony, even when women make money of their own.
Of course, people who marry aren’t supposed to be thinking about money. Thanks in part to the movies, the common wisdom nowadays is that people should – and mostly do – marry for love. But money matters.
Women who lack higher education know from firsthand experience that similarly educated men have been hit hard by a changing U.S. economy in recent decades. Declines in manufacturing and other male-dominated fields have contributed to a 28 percent drop in male income since 1969 after inflation.
The Pew information on marriage reflects the diminished earning power of blue-collar men, too many of whom no longer can support a family with their earnings. In 1960, Pew reports, the least educated Americans were almost as likely to be married as the most educated. Fifty years later, we see a very different picture.
Among college graduates in 2010, 64 percent were married, which is a 12-percentage point drop from half a century earlier. But among those with a high school education or less, a mere 47 percent were married – a remarkable drop of 25 percentage points.
Declining pay among blue-collar men isn’t the only thing undermining matrimony. The college grads, after all, are marrying less, too. In truth, marriage is in decline all over the industrialized world.
But it’s also true that traditional family structure is particularly battered among blue-collar Americans, who not only marry less but are a lot more likely to divorce than those who are college-educated. Even their cohabitations are less stable. None of this improves their children’s chances of bettering their lot.
One would think that blue-collar Americans, knowing that two can live almost as cheaply as one, might be more likely to get hitched. But women’s earnings have held up while men’s haven’t. And blue-collar women are wary of marrying a man they’ll have to support.
Taylor had that luxury: Her final husband was a twice-divorced construction worker 20 years her junior. But that’s rare; affluent, educated women tend to want men who are as successful as they are – at the very least. So we’re going to need a better plan for helping blue-collar men than marrying Liz Taylor.