Wharton School economists Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson have always done interesting work – they published the controversial paper The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness, which demonstrated that women are far less happy in their lives today than they were before the Women’s Movement, both in absolute terms, and also relative to men.
More recently their work has focused on the link between economic growth and subjective well-being. They have found that people’s subjective assessments of their lives are very reliable, and that growth in GDP per capita predicts growth in self-reported well-being. In fact, Wolfers says the correlation is 0.82, the highest correlation he’s ever seen for any two factors.
Wolfers and Stevenson ascribe great importance to family dynamics as part of well-being, because what happens in families strongly affects economic decisions. Consequently, they focus heavily on family, marriage and divorce in their research. In a recent interview with the Gallup business journal, they discuss the nature of their research. I think it’s a fascinating follow-up to my previous post on risk factors for divorce. Excerpts follow.
“Your other areas of research focus include marriage, divorce, and family. Why would these areas interest economists?
Dr. Stevenson: …Families and labor markets are intimately connected, and to understand one, it’s helpful to understand the other. That’s because decisions about labor force participation and about what kinds of jobs to take and what kind of hours to keep are made within the context of family lives. What happens in families affects the way people make those kinds of decisions. And what happens in labor markets affects the decisions people make about families.
Dr. Wolfers: The first place that people notice the similarities between family and economics is in what some have called the marriage market, which looks a whole lot like the labor market. People search for partners the same way they search for jobs. When you find a spouse or a job that looks like a good fit, you take it. And you must make a decision about how much time to spend searching for the perfect spouse or the perfect job before accepting a job or a spouse.”
Is that part of the reason why people who wait until they’re older to get married have a lower divorce rate? Because, being better experienced, they have more insight into the marriage market?
Dr. Stevenson: …It’s a fact that the divorce rate is much lower among people who marry when they’re older. What is harder to know is whether the types of people who wait are the types of people who are less likely to divorce or whether the act of waiting reduces your chance of divorce. But the differences in divorce rates of people who marry in their early 20s versus people who marry in their early 30s is quite large. These are much bigger differences than the differences in the divorce rate across generations.
- One reason might be that those people who marry later have spent a longer time searching, which means that they’re not willing to settle until they have a higher quality match in the marriage market, which in turn means that marriage is less likely to dissolve.
- The other possibility is that we’re not static; when we’re in our 20s, we’re not good at projecting what we’ll want in our 30s and 40s and 50s. It may be that we have better information when we’re older than when we’re younger about what we’re looking for in a partner. You do see some data that suggests that what people in their 20s say are important qualities in a mate are different from what people in their 30s look for.
By the same token, you look for different skills and attitudes in an entry-level employee than you do in an executive employee.
Dr. Stevenson: Yes. And just like most entry-level employees will not become the CEO or a senior executive, I can tell you I was pretty certain most of my boyfriends weren’t going to make the cut. Not all dating is about trying to find a spouse. There is a difference between what you might want in a date on a Saturday night when you’re 19 and what you might be looking for in someone to spend the rest of your life with.
Has anything in your research into family structures or the marriage market surprised you?
Dr. Stevenson: I’m [surprised] that marriage rates in the last few decades have increased so significantly for highly-educated women. This is something you must think through carefully. If you go back to the 1960s, women who went to college weren’t very likely to get married compared with women who didn’t go to college. That was because marriage was largely about women staying home and taking care of the family, while men were in the labor market bringing home the cash. Women who were trained with skills that would be useful in the labor market were not necessarily better spouses. In many ways they were worse spouses because they were spending four years in college instead of learning how to cook. So these women were the least likely of all women to marry.
In the ensuing decades, that has completely reversed; now college-educated women are becoming the most likely to marry. We’ve also seen marriages shift from that 1950s model—where the man specializes in labor market production and the wife specializes in home production and the household is more efficient because of that specialization—to marriages where the benefits come from shared consumption rather than that shared production. We’ve seen a shift from the old model of opposites attract to one in which couples thrive when they have similar tastes and similar preferences in leisure activities, consumption, and how they divide their time between work and play.
Doctors used to marry nurses and now doctors marry doctors.
Dr. Stevenson: Exactly. That’s a real example of that. In fact, you see that in the data—there’s an increase in couples marrying who have similar educational backgrounds.
The marriage market in summary:
- People search for partners the same way they search for jobs. When you find a spouse or a job that looks like a good fit, you take it.
- You must make a decision about how much time to spend searching for the perfect spouse.
- Not all dating is about trying to find a spouse.
- Couples thrive when they have similar tastes and similar preferences in leisure activities, consumption, and how they divide their time between work and play.
- The differences in divorce rates of people who marry in their early 20s versus people who marry in their early 30s is quite large.
My advice, as always:
- Date around until you have found someone truly compatible and worthy.
- Date only men who have the qualities of a good husband and father – now.
- Never marry unless you and your partner are head over heels in love. If you have to wonder, you’re not.
- Marry someone who shares your values, your interests and your priorities in life.
- For women who wish to have children, delaying marriage beyond peak fertility (27) increases risk.