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Oh Death, Do Us Apart

One of the biggest society-changing trends of the coming millennium will be the decay and decline of marriage

I have recently been co-opted onto the Research Team of arguably the world's leading writer on Economics (four New York Times bestsellers in 10 years). He is writing a new book, which forecasts the shape of things to come over the new millennium.

One of the key objectives of the book is to focus on existing trends that will create dramatic, nay tectonic, changes in the way the world works. Among the various strings of thought that he encourages is to look at how things should be (i.e., specific problem areas that humanity faces, where existing institutions have failed to address the problem); and then to work out how, in a bumbling, apparently random and jerky fashion, the world progresses towards a 'least imperfect' solution.

In anticipating this change, we might sometimes actually influence its progress or regress. As writers, thinkers or forecasters, our role is to study the various dimensions of this forthcoming change, to keep monitoring its direction and keep our readers informed. The subject of our choosing is mostly economics, but this time, I have chosen sociology or quite simply, human relationships.

Mostly, I have contributed my thoughts in the areas of economics, but here is an idea that was rejected because it was 'out of the syllabus'. One of the biggest society-changing trends of the coming millennium will be the decay and decline of marriage.

The fruits of marriage are heavily loaded in favour of those (men or women) who seek security (also called the 'status quo'). Marriage encourages sloth, allows one person to live off the other and gives a parasite the legal right to live off the host. My prognosis is that (do look around and let me know) in any marital break-up, it is the fat, sloppy person, who wants to cling to the relationship. And the person walking out is lean, (perhaps mean), hard-working and more than capable of looking after himself/herself. The (mis)use of this institution to turn from player to passenger is one of the biggest pain-points in society. The other structural flaw in this institution is that it promotes a bilateral monopoly of power. We all know from economics and management that autocratic companies that create oppressive environments will lose their best employees first. Those who have choice will exercise their right to flight. But what about a bilateral power equation, like in a marriage? What starts out as a relationship between equals, never remains so. Invariably, one or the other party in a marriage takes over the reins of power, while the other submits. Slowly, one becomes 'more equal' takes over the 'senior role' in a marriage. After this change sets in, we have no means of knowing where it will culminate-from 'boss-subordinate' to 'master-slave' to 'sadist-masochist'-to 'married-and-they-lived-unhappily-ever-after'!

In the olden days, this institution was heavily loaded against women. They were economically dependent, with huge social pressures to conform and 'stay married' against all odds. Family structures, the joint family and the obedience culture demanded in the family environments of the past, ensured that women were reduced to little more than animals, meant for carnal pleasure and the duties of childbirth and rearing. Even today, this passes off for 'family' in most parts of the developing world, including India. Today, in some segments of developed society, the boot is on the other foot. Women are much more independent, both economically and socially. A culture of acceptance of failed marriages, much lower social 'stigma' and evolving support systems (friends, online dating services, pubs/ bars and unbelievably, the workplace itself) is ensuring that there are 'escape valves' to this pressure bin called marriage.

I read somewhere that London is the loneliest city on this planet. I don't think it's coincidental that it is also one of the richest. More than 55% of the population is single, or 'in transit'. A huge support system exists to service this crying need (pubs, bars, online and informal dating networks and whatnot). Funnily enough, 8% of the population is already made up of immigrants, overwhelmingly single, young and economically active. The reasons for this may be partly economic, partly sociological. Family migration is difficult, with high house prices and low savings rate on the back of one of the highest living costs in the world. The only kind of person who can survive in London: single, successful and active. How's that for self-selection?

So here comes my prediction for the coming millennium. Marriages will take on many different forms. The existing form will see serious decay. It will no longer remain a bilateral power negotiation, with no choice available. So if your wife does not look after you, it will soon be ok to live out of two houses. Get a nanny to slice out and outsource all the services that you can't get otherwise. The husband's role is already decaying. With double-incomes and sperm banks, who needs the physical presence of a husband. So if a husband does not offer an emotional anchor (also called companionship), a woman is better off with her own salary and the local sperm bank!

So what kind of social services will replace marriage? You can already see it around you. How about marriages with an expiry date? They take care of the single biggest argument in favour of the traditional marriage. What happens to the children? To the extent that marriages are meant to bring up children, how about temporary relationships for the express purpose of parenting?

Think of the implications-the biological parent need no longer be the logical choice for being the guardian. Who knows? You find a better father/ mother and you sack your existing one, hire a new one. Sorry if I sound cynical, I am just trying to be funny.

What about sex, I hear you say. Well, how about the Internet? is my reply. I hear shocked hecklers talking about morality and promiscuousness. But just go back to the simple principle of economics: any road that promotes choice and freedom, is the road that humanity will ultimately move to. That is the way of all human flesh. The evolution of humanity will eventually break down any barrier that tries to limit social freedom and individual choice. This is my central argument against the decline of national consciousness, but that is another story.

Oh yes, there will be temporary costs (like AIDS) which will prove to be stumbling blocks, but as they are overcome, humanity will return to its (human) ways. Any compromise (or balance) will be worked out by individual behaviour, which is as it should be.

In short, what is today a bilateral monopolistic relationship, with social and legal structures that perpetuate what is often an oppressive environment, will decay into a marketplace, with freedom to define the boundaries of marriage and to outsource whatever is the cause of mutual dissatisfaction.

In a perverse sort of way, I would speculate that such 'escape valves' will actually increase the longevity of 'traditional marriages'. This will enable the traditional marriage to keep up the pretence of joint parenting, which might be the only surviving objective of the institution in the coming millennium.

If you look at the progress of all economic and political institutions across the world over the last century, you will see that the central pattern is that the All institutions have morphed in response to the human search for freedom. All, that is, with the exception of the institution of marriage. It remains the one anachronism, despite affecting our personal lives much more closely than, say, the progress of political rights.

What will drive this change? Well, for a start, saying it is doing it. This change requires no social/ political consensus, no passing of laws or no mandate from the heavens. Just send this article to your wife and get started…!