The future of marriage: Valentine's Day proves that romance is alive and well

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The Independent Online
First, a helpful reminder. Just in case you might have forgotten, Saturday is St Valentine's day. So if you are inclined to put a note in this newspaper to the effect that "Little nut brown hare loves big nutcracker hare infinitely" (an authentic one from a couple of years' back), you have until noon today to do so.

If you do, you will be carrying on a tradition that is more than 2,000 years old. The day carries the name of St Valentine (a Roman priest clubbed to death circa 270) or possibly the other St Valentine (Bishop of Terni, martyred a few years later). But the idea of a countryside festival in the middle of February to celebrate the mating of birds (and, by extension, human mating) predates Christianity. The festival of Lupercalia was a Roman pagan one, held on 15 February. The date came forward a day when the Christians adopted the festival and linked it to St V. But the idea seems to have carried on, more or less unchanged, right through the Middle Ages, to be mentioned by Chaucer (Assembly of Fowls) and by Shakespeare (Midsummer Night's Dream). So those of us who contribute to the 11.34 million valentine cards the Royal Mail expects to be posted this week are not just dupes of the modern greetings card industry; we are prisoners of a much older tradition.

We remain prisoners, however, at a moment when the role of women - at least in western society - has changed more in the last 40 years than at any time in the previous 2,000. Take two measures of that change: marriage and female participation in the workforce. The new Social Trends, published at the end of last month, reported that by 1996 births outside marriage here in Britain had reached 36 per cent (and it is over 50 per cent in Sweden).

As for female participation in the workforce, while we have not yet reached the point of Sweden, where there are more women in jobs than men, there are 11.75 million women in employment in Britain against 14.5 men, whereas in 1979 there were only 9.5 million women and 14.8 million men. In other words, there are more than two million more women in work than there were two decades ago; but 300,000 fewer men. Gradually, inexorably, the workforce is becoming feminised.

These changes are remarkable. Indeed when humankind looks back on the last quarter of century I suspect that the dominating change - more important that the end of the Cold War or the economic revival of China - will be the change in the lives of women, in particular the increase in their earning capacity and the social consequences associated with that. Those social consequences of course include the freedom to get out of unsatisfactory marriages, or to have children without the social and economic pressure to get married first.

We may be dissatisfied with marriage, but our desire for romance evidently continues as strongly as ever, for how else could one explain the increasing enthusiasm for this pagan festival of the mating birds? Does this simply mean that we want romance without commitment? Or could it be that the last couple of decades will come to be seen as an historical oddity? Maybe in another couple of decades, the institution of marriage will have made a come-back, births out of wedlock will be in rapid decline and women will have chosen to give up paid work and return to being "homemakers", cooking nourishing meals to welcome home their frazzled husbands?

By coincidence, some support for the "women of leisure" came yesterday from one of those surveys of women's opinion (published by a magazine called Top Sante). It suggested that given the choice most women would like to give up work and be homemakers.

It is certainly possible that the developed world could revert to the pattern where women did go back to homemaking: that happened in the 1950s when the marriage age dropped, the birth rate rose and female participation rates in the workforce fell. But I think, looking ahead one or two generations at least, that the recent change in work patterns will be permanent. The harsh reality of the rise in the proportion of elderly people relative to those of working age will mean that just about everybody who can work will have to do so.

On the other hand I also suspect that marriage will make a come-back. That is not a comment on the moralising attitudes of our new political masters; rather it is an observation of US social trends, where there is considerable pressure to try to find ways of beefing up the marriage contract. As yet there is little evidence here of the opprobrium that used to be attached to "living in sin" or "trading in for a younger model" - indeed the politically correct behaviour seems to be to dump the wife and marry the mistress. But it is important to remember that social attitudes do swing from one extreme to another, and just as the 1950s now seem an oddity of repressive social (and sexual) conformity, so the present norm of one-third of children being born outside marriage may seem equally odd in another 40 years' time.

Indeed it is just possible that the revival of Valentine's day - statistically more cards being posted than ever before in our history - is a sort of lead indicator suggesting a rise in a desire for stable relationships. Unless we are absolutely hopeless romantics or profound hypocrites, when we profess undying love and devotion to each other (in pretty dopey language) we do actually mean it. So our desire for love and romance seems to be as great as ever. What we haven't quite figured out is how to combine that aspiration with a genuine equality of opportunity in the workplace and a genuine equality of chore-sharing in the home.

If we have failed on that score, our failure is unsurprising. The rise of women's economic opportunities is a change of seismic proportions. There is no road-map of how we should adjust, so this generation has to make it up as it goes along, with only common sense as a guide. It would be astounding if it did not take a while to establish new social norms to apply to the changed economic scene. But gradually that will happen. And I expect it will happen by refashioning, adapting and developing institutions that go back for thousands of years - like Valentine's day, and also like marriage.