In the seventh paragraph of David Brooks’ latest New York Times column, titled, “To Be Happy, Marriage Matters More Than Career,” he confesses, “As I confront young adults who think this way [not prioritizing marriage], I am seized by an unfortunate urge to sermonize.” Since Brooks has already been sermonizing for six previous paragraphs, you might think this is the turning point, the place where he will exert some sociological imagination and curtail his unfortunate urge to sermonize. You might think that if you’ve never read anything by Brooks, anyway. Of course, he continues right on sermonizing in the exact same vein n which he started off.
Brooks lectures about the importance of marriage with all the sanctimony you’d expect of a man who, a couple years after divorcing his wife of decades, fell rapturously in love with a woman 23 years younger than himself and remarried. But it’s more than that. He’s also a financially comfortable if not downright wealthy older man lecturing young adults about how to respond to their generation’s financial precarity.
Because that’s Brooks’ point: The young people these days are too concerned with their careers and not concerned enough with getting married. They are thinking about establishing careers now and see marriage as a more distant goal, “something to enter into after they’ve successfully established themselves as adults.” As a result, they are sacrificing their own happiness, so they dang well need that lecture from Brooks.
In the course of his sermonizing, Brooks offers up a series of studies purporting to show this to be true. I do not have the luxury of time that Brooks has to develop each jewel of a column he writes, still less whatever research resources The New York Times puts at the disposal of its most high-profile columnists. In this case, though, Brooks’ research appears to have been overwhelmingly outsourced to the Institute for Family Studies, a right-wing think tank dedicated to promoting marriage and traditional family life. Brooks turns to research IFS “Future of Freedom Fellow” W. Bradford Wilcox right off the bat in the second paragraph, returning later to tout Wilcox’s “vitally important forthcoming book,” titled “Get Married,” and highlighting other studies that are IFS favorites. Wilcox has a record of being very selective in his presentation of data and in some cases is arguably outright dishonest, but it doesn’t seem like Brooks wanted to look beyond the talking points he was handed in any case. They gave him what he wanted and he ran with it.
Even without a specialized think tank to lean on, though, I did notice a few things. Brooks vaguely gestures at the well-established fact that happier people tend to be more likely to get married to begin with, but he’s not very interested in discussing it. He cites a study finding that marriage is the most significant factor associated with happiness, but doesn’t get into how higher income and education level are also correlated with happiness—and that people with higher income and education levels are more likely to be married.
Brooks certainly doesn’t have space for a study by Stanford University sociologist Michael Rosenfeld finding that while women are substantially more likely than men to initiate divorce—something that shows up in decades of data on divorce—they are not more likely to initiate breakups in nonmarital relationships. In other words, there’s something about marriage specifically that makes women want out at higher rates.
The thing is that Brooks isn’t wrong about correlations between marriage and happiness. He’s just totally unconcerned with who it benefits and how and why, to say nothing of the relationship between correlation and causation here. He knows he has to give lip service to how “[w]e could do a lot to raise the marriage rate by increasing wages — financial precarity inhibits marriage,” but that falls short of acknowledging that declines in marriage rates overall are driven by larger declines among working-class and poor people. Lower-income people are less likely to be happy and less likely to be married, but would getting married magically fix people’s lives? The IFS says yes. Brooks dodges the question, but that’s partly because that’s not who Brooks wants to lecture.
When he opens the column by talking about young adults he spends time around whose “common operating assumption seems to be that professional life is at the core of life and that marriage would be something nice to add on top sometime down the road,” does anyone think Brooks is referring to a lot of time spent chatting with low-income people without college degrees? Those are the people less likely to get married, and there are concrete reasons for that. But Brooks wants to talk about what he’s hearing from what he doesn’t admit but we can reasonably presume are highly educated young people kicking off what they expect will eventually be lucrative careers. Entry-level New York Times reporters and editors. Publicists. Students at lectures Brooks delivers at elite universities. The young people he’s talking to do assume they’ll get married—he just thinks they need to plan around it more and do it earlier, and he’s blaming them for lower marriage rates while ignoring the major factor in that.
“Partly as a result of these attitudes,” he writes—“these attitudes” being people establishing their careers before getting married—“there is less marriage in America today. The marriage rate is close to the lowest level in American history.” But “partly” is doing a lot of work there. Brooks is arguing that marriage levels are down because of vibes, when the data pretty clearly indicates that economic precarity plays a more significant role. If Brooks wants to bemoan the marriage rates, that’s where he should be looking. It just wouldn’t fit with his whole smug-conservative-condescending-to-the-libs persona, so he’s not interested.