What’s Really Happening to American Marriages?
This episode is about all the ways that marriage has changed over the last 50 years. We begin by challenging some of the myths of modern marriage. For instance: does marriage make you happier? Is divorce as common as we think? The discussion then moves on to how the institution of marriage is perceived these days, and to what degree it has outlived its original purpose.
We begin by hearing the voices of people all around the country, talking about why they got married or want to. As you might imagine, their reasoning runs from pure romance (love!) to hardcore pragmatic (a visa, a pregnancy, to conform).
Stephen Dubner spends a lot of time talking with Justin Wolfers, an economist at the University of Michigan and the Brookings Institution. Along with his partner/co-economistBetsey Stevenson, Wolfers has done significant research on marriage, divorce, and family. He explains one dramatic change to marriage over the past half-century — from a factory-style model of “production complementarities,” where the mister went off to work and the missus ran the household, to something very different:
WOLFERS: We’ve moved to what economists would call consumption complementarities. We have more time, more money, and so you want to spend it with someone that you’ll enjoy. So, similar interests and passions. We call this the model of hedonic marriage. But really it’s a lot more familiar than that. This is just economists giving a jargon name to love. So you want someone who’s actually remarkably similar to you or has similar passions that you do. So it fundamentally changes who marries who.
But this new model hasn’t just changed the way marriage looks; it has also changed the numbers. In 1960, two-thirds of all Americans aged 15 and older were married. By 1990, that number had fallen to 58.7 percent. Now? It’s dropped to around 50 percent. Harvard economist Claudia Goldin, who has done extensive research on women’s career and family attainments, tells us what accounts for this drop:
GOLDIN: In the U.S., one group of individuals who eventually marry, marry late. And one group is not marrying — the lower-educated, lower-income Americans are not marrying for lots of different reasons. So I wouldn’t say that marriage is still the institution that it once was.
So if marriage isn’t the institution it once was – what does that mean? How does this affect the rest of society? And if the old model of marriage is less attractive, how about a new model? Those are some of the question we’ll try to answer on next week’s episode, Part 2 of “Why Marry?”
This is a transcript of the Freakonomics Radio podcast “Why Marry?, Part 1.
Stephen DUBNER: Marriage — or, as it’s sometimes called, “mawwwiage” – is what brings us together today. It is an institution unlike any other in human history. One could imagine there are countless reasons why two people would marry. We asked some people – in New York City, Atlanta, Minneapolis, and San Francisco – why they got married, or want to get married:
WOMAN: We got married because we love each other.
MAN: To have a family, continue tradition from ancestor to ancestor.
MAN: It’s great, it’s liberating. there’s a whole world out there that unmarried people don’t realize.
MAN: To experience life with.
MAN: To be happy.
MAN: Being part of a community, household, marriage.
MAN: I just think it’s just the right thing to do.
WOMAN: I was 17, when I got married. I didn’t know any better. I think it was what I was supposed to do. Thankfully I haven’t regretted yet.
MAN: In India it is a social thing to get married.
MAN: I’m Catholic, so tradition is a big part of our lives.
WOMAN: I guess I don’t really see why I wouldn’t get married.
MAN: It was the right thing to raise family I thought.
WOMAN: Finances is a big part of it, especially living in tri-state area, because it’s so expensive
WOMAN: His visa was expiring, and so it was either pay for him to go out of the country to get a new visa, or we could get married and have a party.
MAN: We were in love and then she got pregnant and it seemed like the right thing to do.
MAN: She was a Lithuanian girl. Not exactly green card, but it was a decision…I had to make up my mind quick.
WOMAN: We came from broken families, so we were sort of determined not to repeat mistakes both our parents made. *She’s a surfer chick from LA and I liked her.
WOMAN: We just finally decided it would be easier to conform.
MAN: Uh, why should I marry? Ooo, yikes. That’s what my mom asks me all the time!
ANNOUNCER: From WNYC: This is FREAKONOMICS RADIO, the podcast that explores the hidden side of everything. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.
DUBNER: On today’s program, we’re talking about an institution that Americans in particular love:
Justin WOLFERS: Americans love marriage.
DUBNER: That’s Justin Wolfers. He’s an economist at the University of Michigan and the Brookings Institution. Wolfers says that Americans, especially when you compare them to Canadians, the French, the Germans, the Italians, the British, and the Swedes – oh, especially the Swedes! – compared to all of them, Wolfers says, Americans …
WOLFERS: They marry earlier, they marry more often, and more of them get married.
DUBNER: So does this mean that marriage is more popular than ever in the U.S.? It most definitely does not! We’ll get into that later. For now, let me note that Wolfers himself is, importantly, not married – technically at least.
WOLFERS: It could be my essential Australian-ness. There is actually quite seriously in countries, in many other countries, there is a competing institution to marriage, cohabitation. And it’s a huge competitor to marriage in countries like Sweden. And increasingly in Australia as well. Many of my high school friends are not formally married but they live as husband and wife.
DUBNER: So Wolfers, an Australian who’s lived for many years in the U.S., is one of those cohabitors, with children. The person he cohabits with happens to also be an economist, Betsey Stevenson, who’s currently serving on President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers.
WOLFERS: So I met Betsey while I was in graduate school. You know, it’s a very standard thing that happens in economics, you see that cute girl across the room at the labor economics seminar. That’s how many great relationships form.
DUBNER: Just the way they draw it up in all the great romantic novels.
WOLFERS: Exactly. And later that week was Halloween. There was a Halloween party. So I brought a six-pack of Newcastle Brown, which at the time took a big chunk of my student budget. And this rather brazen lass came and took one of them and struck up a conversation. And I knew she was an economist, which sets anyone’s blood racing straight away.
DUBNER: And what was it like for you as the man in the modern era to be courting a woman who you knew would be at least your equal professionally?
WOLFERS: Yeah, boy it was the smartest thing I ever did. Because I get to see Betsey’s paycheck every couple of weeks. And I could have had a 1950s partnership with some other lass who would have a very different paycheck. So this choice pays off.
DUBNER: So you’re a total mercenary. You just sold yourself to the highest bidder it sounds like, essentially, Justin.
WOLFERS: We all do, Stephen, it’s just whether we admit it and the currency in which we count it.
DUBNER: Now, I know that you’re not not serious, but I also know that you were thinking beyond the amount that she would contribute financially to your household bottom line.
WOLFERS: I thought she’d be fascinating.
DUBNER: What did you love about her?
WOLFERS: This is a family show, isn’t it Stephen?
DUBNER: It’s okay, we have a great bleep button here.
WOLFERS: Going to graduate school in economics is an incredibly intense experience. I know that sounds strange to say, but it’s a transformational, intense, intense experience. I had someone I could share it with, who understood what I was going through, who had great notes by the way that I could study from. And we could talk about our passions.
DUBNER: Ah, they could talk about their passions. This, according to Wolfers, is one of the big changes in marriage. Think about all the reasons that people have historically married: out of pure love, in order to have children together, in order to have sex together … people marry to fulfill a religious impulse, or a traditional impulse, maybe a financial impulse.
WOLFERS: So here’s the story that I tell, and actually I should say we tell. My partner and coauthor Betsey Stevenson. There was a model of marriage that we all believed in in the 1950s. We saw it on “Leave it to Beaver.”
[LEAVE IT TO BEAVER CLIP: “It’s sort of traditional I guess. They say a woman’s place is in the home and I suppose as long as she’s in the home she might as well be in the kitchen.”]
WOLFERS: This was the style of marriage that Gary Becker first described, the idea of marriage as sort of like a factory. And the point is you get married because you can do more together than you can apart and it’s just like Adam Smith’s pin factory. The way you do more together is by specializing. And specialization was Dad would go and work in the market and Mom would stay at home and do the enormously complex part of running a household. And she would be really, really good at it, because she’s got a lot of practice. She would be much better at it than Dad. And as a result, the pie is bigger for both or them. So marriage is productive and it makes both Mom and Dad better off.
DUBNER: So marriage used to create, in economist-speak, “productive complementarities.” This meant that a man – the CEO of the household – wanted a spouse who could do the things he didn’t do, most of which involved running the household. But as we all know, a lot has changed in the past few decades, especially for women. Better birth control, more labor-saving devices in the home, and a lot more work outside the home. So the share of married women who are employed has risen from 6 percent in 1900 to 30 percent in 1960 to nearly 70 percent today.
WOLFERS: We’ve moved to what economists would call consumption complementarities. We have more time, more money, and so you want to spend it with someone that you’ll enjoy. So similar interests and passions. We call this the model of hedonic marriage. But really it’s a lot more familiar than that. This is just economists giving a jargon name to love. So you want someone who’s actually remarkably similar to you or has similar passions that you do. So it fundamentally changes who marries who.
DUBNER: But that’s not the only change it produces.
WOLFERS: And the question is why does anyone get married anymore if these productive complementarities have gone away?
DUBNER: Yes, that is the question: why do we still get married? We live in a country where people don’t want to be locked into a two-year cell-phone contract – so why opt for a 30- or 40- or 50-year monogamous partnership? One reason is a belief that marriage makes us … happy. We hear that a lot – that married people are, on average, happier than the non-marrieds. True?
WOLFERS: Most people get this wrong. It turns out at any point in time the people who are married are happier than the people who are not married. People then infer from that, Oh boy, marriage must make you happy. But the alternative explanation is reverse causation — that if you’re grumpy who the hell wants to marry you? So this is selection effects. I think this is really important, because selection effects, that people who are married are selected, they’re not a random group of the population, are something that economists and statisticians talk about all the time. and so it seems to be completely obvious that the grumpy, the hard to employ, the selfish would all be far less likely to be marriageable and therefore be less likely to be married than others. And we actually say that married people look better on almost all measures, life expectancy as well, they’re healthier, than non-married people. But I think that’s because spouses are looking for happy, healthy, functional people.
DUBNER: Okay, that makes sense. Happy, healthy, functional people are more likely to get married – which makes it seem as if marriage itself is responsible when maybe it isn’t. But if all these happy, healthy, functional people are marrying each other, why is the divorce rate so high? For years we’ve all heard that half of all marriages end in divorce. True? Coming up on Freakonomics Radio, we find out:
WOLFERS: I cannot tell you, not a week goes by when I don’t read in a major newspaper that in a period of rising divorce we’ve got to do something.
DUBNER: And how is marriage doing, overall?
GOLDIN: I wouldn’t say that marriage is still the institution that it once was.
WOMAN: Marriage is …it’s a big commitment.
MAN: It’s comfortable, you enjoy being with that one person and you don’t have to worry about a date.
MAN: I would love to get married.
WOMAN: I think it’s kind of ridiculous sometimes
MAN: I feel like I should get married…I don’t think I should get married.
ANNOUNCER: From WNYC: This is FREAKONOMICS RADIO. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.
DUBNER: On today’s show, we’re talking about marriage, and we’re asking, with so many changes to society over the past century or so, why people still marry. After all, we’ve heard for years that half of all marriages end in divorce…
MAN: With the divorce rate as it currently is, like so high,
WOMAN: I’m divorced and do I want to get married again no.
WOMAN: I think divorce is really scary and with how common it is these days.
DUBNER: … So is it true that divorce is so frightfully common today?
WOLFERS: False. in fact, almost everything you hear about divorce is false.
DUBNER: That’s the economist Justin Wolfers.
WOLFERS: I cannot tell you, not a week goes by when I don’t read in a major newspaper that in a period of rising divorce we’ve got to do something. Guess what, divorce has been falling for 30 years. It reached a peak in either 1979 or 1981 depending on how you want to count. And it’s fallen each and every year since. We live in a period of more stable divorces than our parents.
DUBNER: That’s right: the rate of divorce is lower in the U.S. today than it’s been since 1970. Why is that?
WOLFERS: So the great and terrible thing for social scientists is the overwhelming fact is divorce rose sharply through the late 60 and early 70s. Guess what? A lot of other stuff changed through the late 60s and early 70s, and that means that every social scientist just picks their favorite ill and says it’s due to that. It’s feminism, it’s due to women in the workplace, it’s due to declining masculinity, TV, crime, the loss of conservative social values, changing laws, all of these things. ABBA music.
DUBNER: It’s ABBA’s fault.
DUBNER: So Wolfers doesn’t really have an answer for why divorce rose so much in the 1960s and 1970s. But he does think he knows why it’s fallen since:
WOLFERS: I think the primary driver of the low divorce rate is my generation partnered with people with whom they had shared interests and passions. So they partnered with the right people for the style of marriage they end up living in. So it’s not just that we love our partners, but we actually chose a partner who was compatible with the way we’re going to live our lives. It was my mother’s generation who got stuck with, they bought the wrong partner and their life turned out different.
DUBNER: Pardon my interruption and my personal question, but shall I assume then that your parents got divorced?
WOLFERS: My parents got divorced. My parents are part of the spike in divorce.
DUBNER: And that’s because your mother was married in an era where the opportunities were just emerging, but they hadn’t be evident to her at the time of her choice. Or maybe they wouldn’t have been socially acceptable even at the time of her choice.
WOLFERS Yep, she thought she would be a homemaker or maybe a teacher sometimes. My mother is now an entrepreneur.
[MUSIC: Fooling April, “Too Late” (from Three)]
DUBNER: So when you hear that the divorce rate is lower today than it’s been since 1970, that sounds like an unmitigated victory, right? But it’s not that simple, depending on what set of numbers you’re talking about. If you look at the rate of divorce per 1,000 people in the U.S., has has fallen about 33 percent since 1979. If, however, you look at the divorce rate per 1,000 married couples, it’s fallen substantially less, about 27 percent. What does that mean? Here’s Claudia Goldin, an economist at Harvard:
Claudia GOLDIN: Marriage, let’s face it, is on the decline in many different ways.
DUBNER: It’s true. Even in marriage-loving America, the marriage rate today is at an all-time low. In 1960, two-thirds of all Americans 15 and older – yes, 15 and over – were married, 67.6 percent. By 1990, that number had fallen to 58.7 percent. Now? It’s around 50 percent. Claudia Goldin tells us there are at least two big changes that account for this:
GOLDIN: In the U.S., one group of individuals who eventually marry, marry late.
DUBNER: : The current median age of first marriage has never been higher – it’s 27 for women and 29 for men.Compare that to the 1950s, when it was 20 for women and 22 for men.
GOLDIN: And that’s very good because we know from lots of different work that later marriages causally reduce the probability of divorce.
SJD NARR: So this helps explain not only the lower marriage numbers but also the lower divorce numbers. But that’s not all:
GOLDIN: And one group is not marrying – the lower-educated, lower-income Americans are not marrying for lots of different reasons. So I wouldn’t say that marriage is still the institution that it once was.
DUBNER: So if marriage is not the institution it once was – what does that mean? How does this affect the rest of society? That’s the question we’ll try to answer on next week’s episode, Part 2 of “Why Marry?” Turns out we’re not the only ones asking this question.
WOMAN: It doesn’t make sense, the whole institution of marriage
WOMAN: I prefer to be single and free.
WOMAN: I think finding a partner is damn hard.
MAN: Why people get married? I have no idea.
WOMAN: And a lot of people ask me why I’m not getting married, you’re beautiful and this and that. It doesn’t work with me.
DUBNER: In next week’s show, we’ll bring in a new cast of characters to look at some of the consequences of the marriage drop:
Celinda LAKE: In just six years, half of every kindergarten class in this country is going to be the children of single moms.
DUBNER: And if the old model of marriage is less attractive, how about a new model?
WOLFERS: What you’re describing is a move from a one-size-fits-all contract that’s written by the church to a couple that’s sitting down and writing their own contract.