The growing ubiquity of families like the one that Bridges and McCann have crafted is tied in part to changing values and norms. But these shifts are intimately connected to the reordering of economic institutions that once underpinned middle and working-class family life, scholars say. As industrial sector and professional jobs that a half a century ago provided men with enough income to support a family disappear, so has the attachment to marriage as a prerequisite for an economically stable life.
"One of the most important determinants of marriage historically has had to do with men's earnings," said Ronald Mincy of Columbia University's School of Social Work. "It's now the case that men now have lower real earnings than their fathers, even if they have the same level of education. Men's earnings in particular are important to decision to whether people get marriage. If men are not earning high wages, there's less draw to get married."
Research has shown that there's a smaller marriage gap in U.S. cities with better labor markets for people with less education. And scholars are finding that there's a growing marriage gap between high and low income Americans. This, researchers say, is particularly acute when men earn less.
And among men between 20 and 49, over half — 56 percent — of those with higher paying professional and managerial jobs were married in 2013, according to analysis of Census data by Andrew Cherlin, a Johns Hopkins University sociologist. Less than a third — 31 percent — of lower-paid men working in the service sector were married.
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These economic shifts, scholars say, have been part of the reason that cultural ideas and commitments to married families are changing.
"The economy has not been supportive of marriage," said Isabel Sawhill, co-director of the Center on Children and Families and the author of the book "Generation Unbound." "As marriage has disappeared and other lifestyles — single and unmarried parenthood — have become more prevalent, these family structures have gained a staying power that's not easily reversed simply by changing the economic environment."
Bridges grew up in a family that was distinctly of the last generation. His mother and father, neither of whom graduated from college, both worked for decades at Bell Telephone in Texas, making solid incomes that bought a house in the suburbs, and later a home in the mountains outside of the rural North Carolina town of Sparta where Bridges went to high school.
"We didn't need for anything," said Bridges, who lives in the house on the mountain that his parents bought when they moved from Texas to North Carolina about 15 years ago. "I can't say we were wealthy, but it was a pretty regular family."
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Michael Bridges Sr., 57, acknowledges that things have changed for his son's generation. "In the past, when I was his age, you could get on with a company and you could be there till you're old and gray. But with downsizing and companies being bought up, it's harder."
"Still," the elder Bridges said, "the institution of marriage is important."