Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Future of Marriage?

Some fascinating commentary was making its way around the economics blogosphere today on how increasing wealth, decreasing fertility, longer lifespans, greater economic opportunities for women, and technological advancements are all having profound impacts on the institution of marriage. As I commented few days ago, people increasingly seem to approach dating like they do shopping. This may help explain why.

Stephanie Coontz:

Marriages used to depend upon a clear division of labor and authority, and couples who rejected those rules had less stable marriages than those who abided by them. In the 1950s, a woman’s best bet for a lasting marriage was to marry a man who believed firmly in the male breadwinner ideal. Women who wanted a “MRS degree” were often advised to avoid the “bachelor’s” degree, since as late as 1967 men told pollsters they valued a woman’s cooking and housekeeping skills above her intelligence or education. ... When a wife took a job outside the home, this raised the risk of marital dissolution. All that has changed today. Today, men rank intelligence and education way above cooking and housekeeping as a desirable trait in a partner. ... Educated and high-earning women are now less likely to divorce than other women. When a wife takes a job today, it works to stabilize the marriage. Couples who share housework and productive work have more stable marriages than couples who do not ...

Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers:

[F]amilies have always played a role in “filling in” where incomplete market institutions would otherwise have hindered economic development. For example, even in the absence of well-functioning contract law, families found ways to enforce agreements among kin. This naturally gave the family a role as an organizing device for economic activity, and the limits of the firm often coincided with the limits of the family. … Similarly, prior to the expansion of the welfare state, the family had been a key provider of insurance, as spouses agreed not only to support each other “through richer, through poorer, in sickness and in health,” but also extended this guarantee to parents, children, and siblings. Before modern credit markets arrived, access to capital was often facilitated through family ties. … A number of goods and services, such as freshly-cooked meals or childcare, were historically not sold in the market sector. Thus, the family became the firm producing these household services.

So what drives modern marriage? We believe that the answer lies in a shift from the family as a forum for shared production, to shared consumption. In case the language of economic lacks romance, let’s be clearer: modern marriage is about love and companionship. Most things in life are simply better shared with another person: this ranges from the simple pleasures such as enjoying a movie or a hobby together, to shared social ties such as attending the same church, and finally, to the joint project of bringing up children. Returning to the language of economics, the key today is consumption complementarities — activities that are not only enjoyable, but are more enjoyable when shared with a spouse. We call this new model of sharing our lives “hedonic marriage”.

So is marriage doomed? Marriage in which one person specializes in the home while the other person specializes in the market is indeed doomed. ... Yet while the changing marketplace may have made marriage a bit more fragile, it is also key to its survival. Rising productivity has given all Americans more leisure time while simultaneously raising standards of living. As consumption increases, so too will the demand to have someone with whom to share these pleasures.

Richard Florida:

Much more here. Arnold Kling says this looks to be a big new idea. I agree. But I actually think it is both: marriage is complementary in production and consumption. Iconic if controversial case: Jack and Suzy Welch. I would have said Bill and Hillary Clinton but I am not certain about the whole hedonic thing with them. The most successful married couples seem to both enjoy things together immensely and bring complementary skills to the table. I'm also guessing that location matters a whole lot more to the success of these hedonically-oriented partners and power couples than most people might think.

I agree. It seems as thought location would play a large role on many levels -- likelyhood of meeting a compatible mate, availability of employment opportunities and leisure activites, ease of access to services provided by the marketplace that used to be produced in the home (clothing stores, daycare, restaurants, nursing homes, etc.). As American wealth increases and these services become increasingly affordable, we should expect to see people on the margin going to the market for these services, rather than producing them in the home.

In the midst of all of this change is some very good news:

Divorce rates have actually been falling since reaching a peak thirty years ago. And those who have married in recent years have been more likely to stay together than their parents’ generation. These facts should be emphasized and bear repeating — divorce has been falling for three decades — since this important fact is often ignored in the discussion of the current state of the family.

Unfortunately, part of the reason the divorce rate is going down is because marriage is increasingly becoming a luxury good, most prevalent amongst the wealthy.

It will be absolutely fascinating to see what social changes occur in my own lifetime as a result of these effects. It also raises a whole host of challenges for groups which have historically advocated traditional forms of family, particularly churches and other religious groups. My expectation is that they will remain more traditional on average than the rest of society, but will find themselves following these trends as well.

Read more here and here.

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