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Inside the newsroom: It’s the state of the union address (but not the one you think)

There is danger in ‘resume virtues’ becoming more important than ‘eulogy virtues’

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The state of marriages and family will likely have a far greater impact than the political events of the next four weeks.

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WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump, embroiled in an impeachment trial that gets underway in earnest on Tuesday, is also preparing for his State of the Union address. It’s scheduled for Feb. 4, when our nation’s 45th president is invited to address Congress.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sends the invitation to the president, an invitation she rescinded last year during a government shutdown but ultimately allowed a week later. Now having delayed the impeachment trial for weeks, will the Senate conclude its business before the State of the Union address?

Everything in Washington has the potential of becoming a political football. The State of the Union is no exception, having not escaped political intrigue, gamesmanship and (in a word) politics.

Today I leave it behind for something far more important.

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President Donald Trump speaks during an event on prayer in public schools, in the Oval Office of the White House, Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020, in Washington.

Evan Vucci, Associated Press

The most significant “state of the union” address happened earlier this month in Washington, D.C., in a presentation and panel discussion at the American Enterprise Institute. The state of the union — marriages and family — was the topic, and the consequences of these unions, or the lack of them, will likely have a far greater impact than the political events of the next four weeks, serious though they may be.

Consider this example from presenter Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project and professor of sociology at the University of Virginia. He is a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and serves as an adviser to the Deseret News for its annual American Family Survey, now in its sixth year.

During his “state of the union” presentation, he spoke of the students he teaches at the University of Virginia, lauding their many virtues: “They’re curious, they’re hard working, they’re friendly, and many of them have big hearts for good causes,” he said.

But then came this telling revelation:

“They do suffer from one big blind spot: resume virtues are more salient to them than eulogy virtues.” That is a fascinating concept. Somehow there is a decoupling of relationship values from the measurement of success and happiness.

Wilcox continued: “As (New York Times columnist) David Brooks might put it, talking and thinking about marriage, or even dating someone, isn’t a narrative among my students at UVA. My students are definitely more focused on their education and getting their career started than getting into serious relationships.”

Brooks, who was on a panel that night following Wilcox’s presentation, concurred with that observation, noting the students he instructs at Yale are in the same boat. Somehow they have missed the value of this important union, which leads to economic stability and stability for a rising generation of children.

“I teach a course at Yale,” Brooks began. “My students call it therapy with Brooks. Part of it is about how to choose a marriage partner. And they do not want to talk about this subject. One of my students said marriage is a box that’ll come in the mail when I’m 35. I said ... start planning now, it’s an important decision, but I can’t get them to do that.”

Here are a few of the reasons it’s important, as drawn from Wilcox’s studies and observations:

  •  It’s a mistake to prioritize education and work over marriage. “Because for most of us, marriage and family life are much more likely to supply meaning, direction and happiness than a job or piece of paper,” he said.
  • Data from the General Social Survey shows that marital status is a better predictor of being very happy in life than is how much you earn, or whether or not you get a college degree: “What the data tell us is a good marriage far and away predicts general happiness in America.”
  • Wilcox quoted the work of Harvard economist Raj Chetty, who noted that community family structure is the “single strongest correlate of upward mobility” for poor children. It’s noteworthy that Utah is the best in the nation for upward mobility. Said Wilcox: “Our communities are safest and the American dream is strongest for poor kids across the land, when there are more two parent families and fewer single parent families in neighborhoods across the nation.”
  •  “There’s good news to report about the state of our unions and the state of American family life, at least for kids,” Wilcox said. We are back to 1970s levels of divorce, meaning divorce has dropped. In 1970, 15 out of every 1,000 of the married population divorced. That grew to 22.6 per 1,000 in 1980, and dropped to 19.8 per 1,000 by 2010. It was 15.1 percent as of 2018. The American Community Survey is the source.

So here’s the good news-bad news summary of Wilcox’s State of the Union:

“The death of marriage has been greatly exaggerated, because the growing share of kids are poised for being raised by their own parents,” he said... “and for the folks who are getting married today, the prospects of divorce are diminished.”

However, as the examples of students at Virginia and Yale reveal, prioritizing work and school over relationships and marriage stability despite it as a predictor of happiness reveals there is a need to educate our youth about the value of marriage.

Said Wilcox: “The marriage rate has fallen more than 50% over the course of the last half-century. So as a consequence of all this, demographers predict the share of Americans who will ever marry has fallen from about 80% for Gen Xers to about 70% for millennials.”

The Deseret News is currently doing research for this year’s American Family Survey, working with Wilcox and other scholars to understand the family in all its forms and its benefit to society. We will be covering President Trump’s State of the Union address. But we will also focus on the data that helps us understand that while “resume virtues” are important, they are not more important than those “eulogy virtues” tearfully expressed when each of our lives are inescapably evaluated.