A report from the Pew Research Centre this month draws attention to what it calls The New Economics of Marriage: The Rise of Wives. Statistically, between 1970 and 2007, wives have gained a significant edge over husbands in education and their economic contribution to the home has grown faster.
From an economic perspective, these trends have contributed to a gender role reversal in the gains from marriage. In the past, when relatively few wives worked, marriage enhanced the economic status of women more than that of men. In recent decades, however, the economic gains associated with marriage have been greater for men than for women.
This has led to much favourable comment — anything that changes gender roles is A-OK with the educated class, and it is they who largely enjoy the benefits of the trend: greater equality between spouses and increased income — and greater marriage prospects.
But that’s only half the story, and the other half is much more gloomy. As the Institute for American Values and the National Marriage Project joint report, The State of Our Unions 2009, already highlighted, people who are not college educated are tending not to marry. And this has a lot to do with the fact that men in the blue-collar class are losing their jobs (in heavy industry and manufacturing) while women are increasing their share of the changing job market.
Here is how IAV scholar Barbara Dafoe Whitehead put it in a New York Times debate:
The Pew report sheds light on what is happening in two separate and unequal mating markets: the mating market for college-educated women and the mating market for noncollege women. Virtually all of the media attention thus far has focused on what the report tells us about college women. But the more important story is what’s going on with noncollege women.
It is certainly true that the percentage of young women with a college degree now exceeds the percentage of young men with a college degree. Some of these women are marrying down the educational ladder. Nevertheless, the fact remains that college-educated women are only a minority of all younger women, and of course, college educated men are an even smaller minority of all younger men. Thus, of these two mating markets, the one that holds the much larger share of the younger generation is the noncollege market.
For non-college women, marriage is becoming the exception rather than the rule. Their mating pool consists mainly of non-college men. And noncollege men are not attractive as prospective husbands for reasons that are already familiar. Their ability to support a wife and family has been declining for more than three decades, and public policies have done little to reverse this. Moreover, these men may be increasingly reluctant to take on the commitment to marry in the first place.
The ability to marry and stay married is a source of economic advantage. However, as the report demonstrates, this advantage has been moving beyond the reach of the nation’s non-college majority.
Let’s hope President Obama’s new focus on jobs tries to rectify this imbalance against working class men.