From an economic perspective and given these statistics, marriage is a risky financial proposition, particularly for men. When a marriage ends, a partner can lose financial assets, future income and if children are involved, child custody. Even at its best, marriage will lead to an enormous drain of resources. While the average single man in the U.S. lives on about $20,000 a year, the average married man earns closer to $43,000. Part of that differential is due to the age differential between married and single men (an older man will be more likely to be married than a single man), but also, married men earn more because they need to earn more. In order to earn more, those married men are likely working more.
A study done several years ago among sets of 136 sets of male identical twins found that when one twin was married and the other wasn’t, the married twin, on average, earned 26% more than his brother. One of the findings was that the married man simply worked more than his single sibling. So if married life means more time working outside the home and more time working within the house (more housework and childcare), this will erode the attractiveness of marriage, particularly when divorce is an ever-present threat. I believe that as the percentage of men opting out of marriage increases, the percentage of men avoiding higher-income jobs and occupations will also increase. In some cases, men will be able to find an avenue to avoid work altogether, such as leaving the workforce with a disability, living with a parent or friend, etc. Others will adopt a lower-cost-of-living lifestyle and look for part-time work or lower-earning occupations. This may be a partial explanation why we have seen high rates of part-time workers in the U.S. over the last few decades. (In 1968 the number of part-time workers represented just 13.5% of U.S. employees; in 2015, it’s about 18.5%)
An interesting association that has arisen over the last couple decades is the one between the falling percentage of American men in the workforce and the declining marriage rate (see chart below).
In my last couple writings I have been talking about the shrinking labor force over the last twenty years or so, particularly among men. In this chart I compare the men’s labor force participation (the percentage of men declaring themselves in the labor force, employed or unemployed, compared to the total male population) to the yearly marriage rate (number of yearly marriages for each 1,000 of the population). As you can see, the trend for both statistics since 1990 is down. And they’re down quite a bit. The number of yearly marriages in America has fallen an amazing 30% in a little over two decades. The labor force participation rate isn’t much better with a participation rate of over 76% in 1990 falling to about 70% in 2012. (The labor force participation rate has more recently hovered around 69%; more recent marriage rates aren’t yet available.)
These two variables, the percentage of men in the labor force and the marriage rate, are highly related. The correlation coefficient between these two variables over this 22-year time frame is about 93%, showing an extremely high degree of correlation. And while correlation does not prove causation, such a higher correlation does indicate that there may be a variable or variables that are influencing both of these trends.
Perhaps the variable that is most often used to explain the trend of both of these indicators, lower marriage rates and fewer men in the workforce, is increasing college enrollment. We know that over the last few decades the percentage of students continuing on to higher education has been steadily increasing. However, if we are looking at the last two decades, the increase in the percentage of young Americans attending college is mostly because of the higher number of women going to college. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, from 1990 to 2012, the percentage of 18-24 year-olds in college increased from about 32% to 41%, but about three-fourths of that increase is because of substantially higher rates of female enrollment (an increase from 32% to 45%), not male enrollment. So while that might partially explain the lower marriage rates, from the perspective of more female students and fewer in the marriage market, it doesn’t explain the lower male participation rate in the workforce. In fact, from 2009-2012, the percentage of males in college actually decreased, while their labor participation rate continued to decline and their marriage rates were flat.
I believe that these trends represent structural changes. One of the most basic economic principles is that people respond to incentives and disincentives. When taxes, regulations and economic circumstances become more cumbersome, a certain percentage of the individuals will withdraw from the workforce. Similarly, a growing percentage of men (and women) who see inadequate incentives to join the marriage market and/or have a high incentive to avoid the divorce market, will simply stay away, the rational response to incentives and disincentives.
What I think will be interesting are the consequences of these changes. Under the surface of the U.S. economy, the changes in marriage (with similar changes in many other economies around the world) is resulting in a changing economic environment within households and across society. I will follow up a bit more on this next time.