Oh, the Times they are a-Changin

I’ve often claimed that relative income- the ratio of potential earnings for women to the potential earnings for men in their potential marriage pool– is a kind of Unified Field Theory for where and why marriage rates are declining. Not only do they explain why wealthier households tend to have maintained higher marriage rates even as poorer households’ rates have declined, they also are suggestive of why means-tested welfare benefits tend to have outsized disincentive effects on marriage and why black marriage rates fell so extraordinarily quickly in the late 20th century.

While I still think this hypothesis has a lot of explanatory power, it’s worth noting that over the last few years, marriage rates have continued to decline…

marriedwhiteandblack

even as incomes of men relative to average wages of women have rebounded (for blacks) and plateaued (for whites) since their low point during the last recession:

ratioswhiteandblack

Putting these two graphs together on a single set of axes is interesting, because it suggests that while there seems to be a kind of enduring relationship between relative incomes and young people’s marriage rates, recent declines are distinctive:

marriedwhiteandblackratio

Is this really because of Tinderpocalypse, or porn, or a second sexual revolution, or the alleged ability of desirable men to avoid commitment because another girl is always a swipe away?

Whatever it is, it seems distinctive and troubling that the marriage rate has generally been dropping more quickly even as the economy has recovered.

6 thoughts on “Oh, the Times they are a-Changin

  1. This one is interesting ST. Is it that we have a case where culture is driving marriage rates moreso than economics, or is it that our economic stats don’t reflect reality when it comes to measuring what it is that drives marriage? Or both?

    I am also curious to what degree marriage as an anthropological institution is coming to supplant it as a legal one. This process is well-advanced in Scandinavia, where people who live together their whole lives and raise children never bother to get married in the eyes of the state. In the US, this is still rare, but I feel like I see an uptick in this behavior.

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    1. Yes, it seems like the US has kept a tight class gradient in marriage (and unmarried childbearing); there’s a lot of media hype about the end of monogamy but I wonder (somewhat cynically) whether this is somewhat wishful thinking from people who would prefer that marriage were no longer high status.

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      1. I am reminded of Regency England, where the vast majority of the population lived fairly traditionally, but wasn’t married in the eyes of the state or the Anglican church. One of the big projects of the Victorians was a regularization of marriage. This may just be a relaxation to that ground state.

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  2. Is this due to a lower rate of new marriages, an increased rate or divorce, or some combination? Disaggregating this by age might also prove interesting. Are people in the age range where new marriages are highest (late 20’s, early 30’s) still recovering from the recession, and delaying marriage until they are more financially stable? Are boomer parents breaking up now that the kids are grown? These are both trends I have observed anecdotally.

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