June 28, 2017

Economix Blog: The Declining Demand for Husbands

Nancy Folbre, economist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Nancy Folbre is an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Once upon a time women seemed more eager than men to marry. Today such generalizations no longer apply.

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Is it women’s preferences (the demand for husbands) or men’s preferences (the supply of husbands) that are driving the trend toward less marriage? It’s hard to tell, but some gender asymmetries are apparent. For instance, a recent poll of unmarried blacks of prime marrying age found that only 25 percent of women were seeking a long-term relationship compared with 43 percent of men.

Some people may dislike application of concepts like supply and demand to the search for potential lifetime partners. After all, we like to think of ourselves — and our partners — as unique individuals, not as substitutes or next-best choices.

But the concept of a marriage market offers some useful insights into the evolution of marriage as an institution. It also helps explain why markets don’t always generate efficient adjustments to new circumstances.

As a contractual commitment, marriage has a price. It offers both costs and benefits to potential partners. The contract involves commitments for financial support and family care on terms that can be completely egalitarian.

But the terms can also be more advantageous to men or to women. For example, Anglo-American law traditionally gave men greater rights than women in marriage, and some religious traditions today encourage wives, but not husbands, to promise obedience.

Economic prospects matter: not just the relative earnings of men and women but also their relative contributions of time and energy to domestic work and family care.

Women are willing to pay a higher price for marriage than men if they have few alternatives, as when their opportunities for economic independence are restricted. An increase in the supply of women who want to marry drives the price of marriage down for men.

In these circumstances, as the economist Shoshana Grossbard puts it, husbands can pay a low “quasi-wage” for domestic services.

If the supply of women who want to marry decreases, the terms of marriage move in favor of women. They are likely to receive a larger share of joint income and leisure time. Husbands become more likely to relinquish some decision-making power and do more housework and child care.

Marriage market dynamics mean that a bride’s bargaining power is partly determined by the number of other choices her groom has (and vice versa). The changing terms of marriage complicate the effects of women’s improved economic position. On the one hand, men should like the prospect of sharing income with a high-earning woman. On the other hand, they may find it difficult to adjust to a new social role.

Considerable research suggests that gender roles are, in fact, pretty sticky. In a recent article, Marianne Bertrand, Jessica Pan and Emir Kamenica offer evidence that wives often try to enact traditional gender roles in an apparent effort to reassure their husbands that they are not a threat. (The New York Times took note of their findings in an article and a commentary.)

These economists also contend that couples in which the wife earns more than the husband are less satisfied with their marriage and are more likely to divorce. But as the sociologist Philip Cohen points out, this assertion is based on data more than 20 years old and disregards a large body of sociological research.

Some attitudes have recently changed in the United States. According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, only about 28 percent of respondents this year agreed that “it was generally better for a marriage if a husband earns more than his wife,” compared with 40 percent in 1997.

Economic factors may shape the pace of attitudinal change. In a fascinating study of nonmarriage among women college graduates in Japan, Jisoo Hwang observes that men whose mothers were employed have less traditional attitudes than other men and were also more likely to marry. She hypothesizes that the relatively recent and abrupt increase in female employment in that country made it more difficult for men there to adjust.

Some evidence from the United States suggests that class and education also influence role flexibility. Affluent couples are more likely to marry than other Americans, perhaps because they don’t need to renegotiate gender roles; they can purchase substitutes for wives’ traditional domestic work in the form of restaurant meals, child care and cleaning services.

Higher education may give students more familiarity with normative change and more experience negotiating differences. In the Pew survey referred to above, adults with a college degree were only half as likely as those with only a high school diploma to say it is generally better for a marriage if a husband out-earns a wife.

The demand for long-term commitments seems to be steadily declining among both women and men. Philip Cohen persuasively asserts that we should stop bemoaning this change and adapt to a world in which fewer adults marry.

But it is also worth noting that inflexible rules and sticky gender roles impede adjustments that could help increase both the demand for and supply of potential spouses. The sociologist Kathleen Gerson develops this position in some detail in her book “The Unfinished Revolution.”

As same-sex couples have profoundly demonstrated, the demand for marriage is not based on some natural sexual division of labor, but on the desire to give personal commitments public recognition.

Men and women who get this point probably enjoy a distinct advantage in finding a partner, whether or not they are lucky enough to achieve long-run equilibrium with someone they love.

Article source: http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/06/17/the-declining-demand-for-husbands/?partner=rss&emc=rss

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