The Pew Institute came out last week with a report saying there are record numbers of Americans who have never married. One of its key findings is a growing gender gap in these never-married statistics – less and less men are opting to go the marriage route.
I hooted when I saw that headline. The more we, as a nation, debate same-sex marriage, the more we find ourselves questioning the actual function of marriage in our society – and, to be frank, coming up relatively empty.
Love? Yeah, right. Marriage researcher Stephanie Coontz has written extensively about how the idea of marriage as a partnership between equals is very young – as young as 50 years old. In fact, the recent evolution of this idea is one of the reasons Coontz credits with our society’s increasing acceptance of same-sex marriage.
She writes, “In some cultures and times, true love was actually thought to be incompatible with marriage” (2006). Her book, Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage outlines a range of functions marriage has served throughout history, from family or political alliances and tribal security to ways to pass down property.
So… beyond love and barring having our parents give us away in exchange for a few goats, what’s the economic benefit to men and women getting married today? And why are less and less of us choosing to be married?
Study after study has come out in the past saying married men earn more than single men. The theoretical corollary to that, funnily enough, is that single, childless women earn more than married women, and certainly more than married mothers (Cohen and Haberfield 1991, Killewald and Gough 2013).
But that doesn’t match up with the Pew Institute report – if marriage for men is so lucrative, that gender gap should be the other way around. More men should be getting married and more women should be opting to be single, right?
A common way of understanding the financial bonus for married men has been the idea that men’s productivity at work gets a boost when they get a wife to take care of the domestic side of things and support their husband – what sociologists call the gendered division of labor.
Well, actually, scholarship in recent years has found that idea might be outdated. I propose that it’s outdated for a number of reasons – the growing share of women in the labor market, and the skyrocketing numbers of women attaining college degrees, for example.
Regardless of my theories, researchers find that when they control for family size/needs, income levels, hours spent working, and similar factors, the actual financial effect of marriage contradicts long-held beliefs. Women gain about 55% in income after marrying or co-habitating, and men’s income remains unchanged (Light, 2004).
Furthermore, there’s evidence that division of labor, while changing, is still very gendered. Each weekly hour of men’s household labor is associated with $94 lower annual personal wages, while their wives’ hours doing domestic work has little effect on their household income. Conversely, each hour per week that husbands spend doing housework predicts $56 higher annual earnings for women. Despite this evidence of gendered division of labor, domestic labor actually has insignificant effect on wages for either men or women who are working full-time year-round (Lincoln, 2008).
So women may actually gain financial benefits through marriage. Huh.
There are two non-financial marriage premiums for men, though. One study out of Sweden found that married men gained greater authority in the workplace – especially when they became fathers – compared to their single and childless counterparts. Women’s odds of greater supervisory authority remained unaffected by marriage or children (Bygren and Gahler, 2012). They found no women’s “penalty” or evidence that a woman’s career would suffer because of marriage or children, which is good but contradictory with other studies about the gender gap in the labor market.
“Men may react to [becoming fathers] in a gender-stereotypical way, and take the traditional household provider role,” write Bygren and Gahler. “Entering into an authority position in the workplace is one way of doing this. Women, instead, take the traditional role of caring for their children, which can be combined with an active career involving authority and the like, but only with great difficulty. Thus, the result is that women’s careers stall when they become mothers.”
The second non-financial marriage premium I want to be sure not to ignore is actually for both men and women: the survival one. Marriage seems to have a protective effect for survival (especially where suicide is concerned). Married people live longer than single people, with an additional premium for men (Rendall et al, 2011).
But the fact that married men make more than single men, and either married or single women persists. Researchers looking qualitatively at the male marriage wage premium in Russia theorized that “[b]y marrying, men implicitly commit themselves to a ‘responsible’ version of masculine identity, to which breadwinning is central. Paid work thus becomes personally meaningful. It is also externally validated by wives, who attempt to hold men accountable to responsible masculinity through pressure to earn and monitoring” (Ashwin and Isupova 2014).
This production of men’s masculinity through marriage doesn’t quite match up with the picture of more and more men opting for lifelong bachelorhood that the Pew Report exhibits. Ashwin and Isupova also noted a “planning effect” in their work: men who planned to marry sought higher wages in anticipation of the financial demands fatherhood and marriage would bring. So what about the men who are just fine not marrying?
Or the women, for that matter?
The Pew Report does provide some illumination for the causes of the higher rates of never-married people.
There's a generational split in these public values, though. 67% of those aged 18-29 said we were just as well off if we had priorities other than marriage and children, while 55% of those aged 50 and older said we were better off if people made it a priority to get married and have children.
Adults are marrying later in life – the Pew study looks at people 25 and older, which seems silly to me, but that reaction just says how much of a 21st century girl I am. “The median age at first marriage is now 27 for women and 29 for men, up from 20 for women and 23 for men in 1960” (Wang and Parker 2014).
Also in the Pew study: Young women place a high importance on finding men with a steady job, which is trickier than it sounds. With women attaining higher educational attainment and employment rates than men, this means the pool of young men is shrinking. Shrinking even more when you consider that some of those men may not be open to the idea of marriage in the first place, and perhaps not to a more educated woman.
Regardless of the Pew Institute’s report, I don’t think it’s time to wring our hands over the decline of marriage over the last few decades and the horrendous effect it might have on our social and economic future (see Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institute worry about the children of single mothers here – never mind that what he's referring to is actually the result of poverty rather than a result of nonmarital birth).
Rather, I think it’s time to look at the ways we’re adapting, like the emerging trends Coontz notes (i.e. unmarried parents cohabitating, or women getting degrees and working in anticipation of being financially independent).
It’s a brand-new future, after all. One in which Pew Reports don’t mark the age of 25 as the threshold for getting married, and don’t assume that every young woman is looking for a man (or vice versa) with whom to legally intertwine themselves. One in which studies leave out the heteronormativity when looking at couples, married or otherwise. One in which romance is not necessarily dead, but the need to make that romance legal might be taking its last breaths.
One in, maybe, just maybe, we no longer need to cling to the heterosexual power dynamics found in a "traditional marriage" to shore up our own gender identities.
Ashwin, Sarah and Olga Isupova. 2014. "'Behind Every Great Man...': The Male Marriage Wage Premium Examined Qualitatively." Journal of Marriage and Family 76(1):37-55.
Bygren, Magnus, and Michael Gahler. 2012. Family formation and men's and women's attainment of workplace authority. Social Forces 90, (3) (03): 795-816, http://search.proquest.com/docview/1347783717?accountid=11243 (accessed October 3, 2014).
Cohen, Yinon and Yitchak Haberfeld. 1991. "Why do Married Men Earn More than Unmarried Men?" Social Science Research 20(1):29-44 (http://search.proquest.com/docview/61256821?accountid=11243).
Coontz, Stephanie. Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage. New York: Penguin, 2006.
Haskins, Ron. “Marriage on the Rocks: Economic and Social Consequences for Kids.” Brookings Institution. June 26,2013. Web. October 3, 2014.
Killewald, Alexandra, and Margaret Gough. 2013. Does specialization explain marriage penalties and premiums? American Sociological Review 78, (3) (06): 477-502, http://search.proquest.com/docview/1417525724?accountid=11243 (accessed October 3, 2014).
Light, Audrey. 2004. Gender differences in the marriage and cohabitation income premium. Demography 41, (2) (05): 263-284, http://search.proquest.com/docview/60541773?accountid=11243 (accessed October 3, 2014).
Lincoln, Anne E. 2008. Gender, productivity, and the marital wage premium. Journal of Marriage and Family 70, (3) (08): 806-814, http://search.proquest.com/docview/290109811?accountid=11243 (accessed October 3, 2014).
Rendall, Michael S., Margaret M. Weden, Melissa M. Favreault, and Hilary Waldron. 2011. The protective effect of marriage for survival: A review and update. Demography 48, (2) (05): 481-506, http://search.proquest.com/docview/1347784770?accountid=11243 (accessed October 3, 2014).
Wang, Wendy and Kim Parker. “Record Share of Americans Have Never Married: As Values, Economics and Gender Patterns Change.” Pew Research’s Social & Demographic Trends Project. Pew Research Center, September 24, 2014. Web. October 3, 2014.