Op-Ed: The Recession Isn't Hurting Marriage Census figures show that fewer Americans have married since the recession began. Many researchers draw a link between falling marriage rates and uncertain economic times. But economist Justin Wolfers argues that marriage and divorce rates are actually immune to the vagaries of the business cycle.
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Op-Ed: The Recession Isn't Hurting Marriage

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Op-Ed: The Recession Isn't Hurting Marriage

Op-Ed: The Recession Isn't Hurting Marriage

Op-Ed: The Recession Isn't Hurting Marriage

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/130571843/130571842" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Census figures show that fewer Americans have married since the recession began. Many researchers draw a link between falling marriage rates and uncertain economic times. But economist Justin Wolfers argues that marriage and divorce rates are actually immune to the vagaries of the business cycle.


I'm Jennifer Ludden, and this is TALK OF THE NATION.

Bad economy and troubled marriage go together like a horse and carriage? That's what keep hearing since the recession began. Research shows marriage rates are down, in fact, to their lowest level in a century. Intuitively, it makes sense. Who could afford a big ceremony, for one thing? And committing to marriage is probably easier with a job and secure future.

But in an op-ed in The New York Times, economist Justin Wolfers warns the link does not hold up. Marriage and divorce rates, he says, have been remarkably immune to the ups and downs of the business cycle.

W: 800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation and find the link to Justin Wolfers' op-ed, "How Marriage Survives" at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Justin Wolfers is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, and joins us here in Studio 3A. Welcome.

JUSTIN WOLFERS: It's great to be here.

LUDDEN: So you write that there were 2.1 million marriages in - marriage licenses - was that right - in the U.S. in 2009, and that is down a bit. You don't think any of it's from the bad economy?

WOLFERS: It could be there's a few people who are not getting married because of the bad economy. And it could be there's a few people who are getting married because of the bad economy. You started off with the basic intuition people have: I can't afford to get married because of the economy. That's the standard thing to do. But economics says, you don't just look at the cost. Look at the benefits. And if you think about the benefits of being married, one of the important benefit is, they'll stick with you through richer and poorer.


LUDDEN: If you start out with poor, you can only go up.


WOLFERS: Well, if one of us loses our job, we'll probably struggle through. If I'm by myself and I lose my job, that's going to be really hard. So, actually, in a weak economy, partnerships in many forms, including marriages, really do make sense.

LUDDEN: And you suggested that some people may also be moving in together, who normally wouldn't, to save costs. If even they're not getting married, maybe they're hooking up, you know, living together.

WOLFERS: You nearly said hooking up.


LUDDEN: Right.

WOLFERS: So there's two things here. There's the nonstory, which is the media said that marriage was down - just not really true. A very slight decline, and exactly the same decline we had the previous year, the year before that, the year before that and the year before that. But there is a story which the media hasn't told, which is an enormous increased in the last year, in particular, in cohabitation. So the sense that there is documented - you know, the census forms and the CPS doesn't exactly say: You know, are you lovers? But we can look for opposite-sex partners living together. That rose 900,000 last year, so a stark rise. So the number of marriages, 2.1 million, about the same as normal, but actually, you know, a sharp increase in cohabitation.

So folks who've been wringing their hands and saying the recession's bad news for love, looks like almost the opposite is true. More people living together, more people in various forms and partnerships this year than previous years.

LUDDEN: You know, cohabitation has also been on the rise for a long time, has it not, as marriage has been on the decline for decades?

WOLFERS: It has. Cohabitation's very strongly on the rise, particularly in Europe. And in Europe, I think it's fair to say cohabitation is a competing institution to marriage. People get to choose the legal institution or the social institution. In the United States, when you interview or survey people in cohab relationships, it's still the case that a majority of them, almost - nearly all of them, in fact, seek cohabitation as a stepping stone to marriage. So it's not a replacement institution. It's a halfway, trying things out. And then it seems like most of them are still going on and getting married.

LUDDEN: Because over the - the course of our lifetimes, many - most - the vast majority of people do get married, even if we're doing it later and later. Is that right?

WOLFERS: Yeah. So, you know, we hear all this gloom and doom, the end of marriage. What's actually happening is marriage is getting delayed. The typical age of first marriage now for men is 28 years old. For our parents' generation, it was 23. So if we looked at the number of 25-year olds who are married, we'd say, you know, marriage is over. But it's not.

Let's look instead at the number 40-year-olds who've been married. The number 40-year olds who have been married is about 80 percent. So four out of five. Even in the heyday of marriage in the '50s and '60s, that was, you know, 90 percent. So it was higher, but not dramatically higher. Marriage is still an absolutely essential institution.

LUDDEN: But now we break it down, it gets interesting because, apparently, Pew Research Center came out with a survey recently that said that, for the first time since records have been kept, college- educated, white women now have just as much a chance of getting married as their less-educated counterparts. It used to be that a college degree was not a good thing on the marriage market. And suddenly, you're just as likely to end up a misses as someone else without one.

WOLFERS: Yeah. So it used to be that being highly educated was really good for a man, but terrible if you're a woman. So if you go back 100 years, a woman with a master's degree or PhD, you know, it's round about a one-in-four chance to ever get married. So this really was a stark choice way back in history between career and married life. We're seeing an enormous surge in marriage among the college-educated, some retreat in marriage among those with less than a college degree. The two lines are probably roughly probably roughly crossing right now, so it looks like there's no differences between those who do and don't have a college degree about whether they get married. There's a very sharp difference, though, in when they get married and if they end up getting divorced.

So many of your listeners, NPR's overwhelmingly college educated, the old facts about divorce, you know, the claim that one out of two are going to end in - that one out of two marriage is going to end in divorce just aren't true for your listeners. Now, they are true for some subsets of the population, predominantly low-skilled, less-educated and folks who got married very young.

LUDDEN: Mm-hmm.

WOLFERS: But among folks who got married sort of mid- and late- 20's and who went to college and doing okay, the divorce rates are actually very low.

LUDDEN: Is the recession affecting your plans for marriage or divorce? Call us at 800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org. So divorce is going down overall or just in - among the educated?

WOLFERS: It's going down overall. This is the least understood social statistic out there. So I want to pound the table and I want to say it once, and I'll say it again, divorce has been falling in the United States since 1979, in almost every year. This is a period in which on any given day you can open any given newspaper and read a story that says we have divorce rates on the rise, blah, blah, blah, bunch of social ills are happening. It's just not true.

The other thing is divorce is falling, marriage is falling. You might think the two are linked. Maybe they are, but so what we can do instead as researchers is track what happened to the people who got married in 1970s, how likely were they to get divorced. Now, that's actually the peak. This is what we call the greatest divorcing generation. Of the people who got married...

LUDDEN: People who got married in the '70s?

WOLFERS: Yeah. The people who got married in the '80s, less likely to divorce than those who got married in the '70s. People who got married the '90s, less likely to get divorced again. People who got married in (unintelligible), less likely again.

LUDDEN: And why?

WOLFERS: I'm going to leave that as an open question.


WOLFERS: I really don't know. I - you know, one of the things we can talk about is what it means - well, actually - of course I'm social scientist. Of course I have an answer.


WOLFERS: What marriage is has fundamentally changed. So the old view of marriage was - you see it on "Mad Men," right? Don Draper goes to work and Betty Draper stays at home. And so this was the view that what marriage allows you to do is specialize. Betty is a household specialist.

LUDDEN: And as you put it on your article, opposites attracted.

WOLFERS: Absolutely. And that was the old aphorism, and it absolutely made sense because being a household specialist was in fact technically very demanding. Doing washing in the 1950s was a difficult task. Today, washing machines are so simple that even a man can operate them. And we've seen a whole lot of things happen. The microwave oven means again it doesn't require a whole lot of skill to cook. We import your clothes from China rather than sewing them at home.

And so the need for household - a family to have a household specialist has gone away because this no returns to specialization. It's becoming easy for almost any - or instead of - there's a lot of stuff we used to produce at home we now just buy in the market. So we buy prepackaged food. We buy our clothes from China. And many of us buy services in the house as well. You know, you buy a cleaning lady rather than, you know, paying - effectively paying your wife to stay home. That's changed.

LUDDEN: So you say that marriage today is now about - you know, it used to be this economic union where you do this, I'll do that. And now, it's kind of about shared passions. You call it hedonic marriage?

WOLFERS: Yeah. Well, so, Jennifer, I think everything is economic. Economic just means people are thinking about the cost and benefits. So the benefits in the old days were we were more productive together than we were apart. That was because household work was difficult. We needed a household specialist. It's just not true today.

So then that leads to the question why is it people get married today? Well, we're more productive together than we are apart. But the reason we're more productive today is just we have more fun. And so we live in a world now where we have higher incomes than our friends - than our parent's generation did. We have more leisure time. And actually, we have much longer longevity. We're more likely to live well beyond the child-rearing days. And as a result, our lives now have to be - are much more about shared passions. That's a different sort of matching. And so it's a different sort of marriage happening today.

LUDDEN: Let's take a call. Bill(ph) is on the line from Loma Linda, California. Hi there, Bill.

BILL: Hi there. I'm a graduate student down here in Loma Linda. My fiance, we recently got engaged, is working in Sacramento. So it's about three or 400 miles north of me. She's working in a very good job for just having come out of undergraduate. And I was just - first, I had a question that - what - is there a way you can tell me any financial incentives to getting married even though one would be living apart? You know, our situation is that if she gives up her job working for the state, which is kind of tough here in California, sometimes, is - it'll be really difficult for her to get a job in Southern California. It's probably one of the worse areas for jobs in California.

WOLFERS: So I think...

BILL: So I guess the question will be like, you know, do you know any financial incentives if that's the case?

LUDDEN: Make the case.


WOLFERS: So he's more likely to get two sets of incentives. So one is if you and your partner form a household together when you're no longer 300 miles apart, everything's going to be cheaper, right? You're going to be renting one apartment. You're probably be, you know, buying your vegetables a little bit more in bulk, and that's going to give you a bunch of savings right there. That's an economic incentive. It doesn't come from the government, it just comes from the fact that it's cheaper for two to live together than two to live apart.

I suspect, though, you're thinking about, you know, what are the incentives the government gives you to be married rather than unmarried? And here, it depends on more of the particulars of your tax records than you want to tell me on the air. If you're both highly paid, getting married, there's actually a marriage tax. If one of you is highly paid and one of you is not, there's a marriage premium. You're actually saving money by getting married. And if you're both low paid, in fact, you're probably doing a little bit better by being married. That's very rough. You know, there's online tax calculators, you can work this out. It's probably not a huge amount of money at this point in your career either way.

And so then I think this leads to the harder question, the one that you didn't ask, which is should the government be in the game of providing incentives for people either to get married or not married? That's a harder question.

BILL: (Unintelligible)

WOLFERS: It's probably one for your ethics, not mine.


LUDDEN: All right. Bill, good luck with that decision.

BILL: Thank you very much.

LUDDEN: Thank you. Will(ph) is in Cincinnati, Ohio. Hi, Will.

WILL: Hello. I'm calling in - I'm planning to propose soon, and we're both finishing our last year in graduate school. But we're planning to be engaged for probably around two years - one, to get out of graduate school, but the other is we have to find jobs, find a place to live together. And her field is much more restrictive than mine as to where she can find jobs.

So for us, the economy is part of it. It's not all of it. A lot of it's just the inconvenience of having to figure out where to go and how to do it together.

LUDDEN: And you don't want to do that married?

WILL: Well, no. We do, but we want to - you want things at least set up because right now we don't have jobs lined up. We don't have a future, you know, town as to where to go. So it's kind of a balancing act between where we want to go and where we can be secure financially as well.

LUDDEN: All right. Before we go to Justin Wolfers, let me just remind people you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Justin Wolfers.

WOLFERS: I just love to hear from Will for one very simple reason: He is exactly the model that we're talking about when we talk about modern hedonic marriage, right? He's obviously very successful. He's just finishing graduate school. So it's going to be Dr. Will in just a moment. And Dr. Will isn't marrying Betty Draper. He's marrying someone's who's also a graduate student, also going to be PhD very soon. And they're also waiting to marry.

So they didn't get married in their early '20s. They're waiting till they've figured out who they are, what they want, what their lives together are going to be like. And so they're getting married quite a lot later, two-year engagement as well. And these are actually all factors that are - the good news for Will, you can tell this to your soon-to-be betrothed, is these are all factors that predict you're much less likely to get divorced as well.

LUDDEN: Congratulations, Will.


LUDDEN: All right, Will, thanks for calling. I think Will has left us. There's some emails here. Eric(ph) in Columbia, South Carolina, says: I recently got married in April. I'm 25. My wife and I were fortunate enough to have a budget that allowed us to have a wedding that we did because we both have jobs. But I don't believe it would have prevented us from getting married if we didn't have enough money for a wedding that we wanted. The economy is, however, affecting our recreation choices. We'd love to travel more and planned on it ever since we began planning to get married. Now, we're just trying to keep our jobs and live within our means.

KC: I recently got married three weeks ago. It was the best thing I've done this entire recession, and my life. Knowing I have someone by my side no matter what gives me the confidence to deal with anything the recession brings our way. The recession really pushed us to be more creative in order to save money. And our wedding day reflected our personalities and relationship. Because of that, we were even able to run away for a 10-day honeymoon.

WOLFERS: What a wonderful story. But again, you hear the we: We will weather the recession. So that again is one of the benefits of being married is it actually does provide some insurance against the vicissitudes of a - of the business cycle.

LUDDEN: So over the big sweep of history, you don't track the ups and downs of marriage with the economy. I mean, even in, like, the Great Depression there's not a little bump there?

WOLFERS: One of the things we did recently - I actually blogged about this on Freakonomics if anyone wants to see it in a picture. The - if you look at a marriage rates since 1860 through to the present, in about half the recessions the marriage rate goes up, in about half it goes down. And because I'm an economist, I'll also say about half time it remains flat as well.

LUDDEN: On the other hand.


WOLFERS: Right. But there's no steady pattern. And there's really not much of a pattern either in the divorce rate with respect to the business cycle. It's - there are really big trends in these data. So things like the wars. You know, a generation goes away, a generation comes back changed. That really changed the marriage rate and changed the divorce rate. The post-pill generation, less likely to marry...

LUDDEN: Birth control pills.

WOLFERS: ...and less likely to - birth-control pills - less likely to marry and less likely to divorce. So these are deep, structural factors. The women's movement: less discrimination against women in the labor market. It's changing what marriage is. It's changing how these women are getting married, so these longer, slower, social factors are having an important effect. I think economic factors like the fact we are richer than our previous - than our parents. We're living longer than our parents. We're having fewer kids than our parents. These are all important factors as well.

LUDDEN: cohabit with someone but can't break up because I can't afford to live in a safe area. Together, we still can't afford a safe area, but we feel safer together.


WOLFERS: Wow. I mean, for Juliana, I wish the world were a kinder place. But cohabitation is providing her some safety there. Cohabitation isn't the problem there, it's the weak economy. And it seems cohabitation is probably providing her with physical safety and probably also with some income safety as well. They can afford to live together a lot cheaper than they would if they were living apart.

LUDDEN: Right. We have time for one, last quick call. DB(ph) in Birmingham, Alabama. Go right ahead.

DB: Hi. Yeah, I was just listening to the show. And my wedding was going to be in May, and we were going to have a two- or 300-person wedding. And we looked at the costs and we decided that we didn't want to do that. And so we looked at eloping and we decided that, you know, we really wanted to have our friends there. And our friends couldn't elope with us, so we decided to go from a 200-person wedding to a 50- person wedding, and to move it from May to this Saturday, actually.

LUDDEN: Well, congratulations.

DB: Thank you.

LUDDEN: Thanks...

DB: We basically just called all of our friends and our family and said, hey, we're doing this now. If you can make it, great, and if you can't make it, then that's okay.

LUDDEN: All right. Well, DB, thanks so much for calling and good luck. We're just - have a few seconds left. But Justin Wolfers, I guess if you don't see the down in - you don't expect a bump in marriage then when the economy picks up? We shouldn't look out for that, as some people claim?

WOLFERS: Not really. It's just going to be - it's one of those boring things. I've got a boring message: It's more of the same looking forward.

LUDDEN: Justin Wolfers is an assistant professor of business and public policy at The Wharton School and a fellow here at the Brookings Institution. His "How Marriage Survives" appeared in The New York Times. Thank you so much.

WOLFERS: Thanks.

LUDDEN: Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY with Ira Flatow. I'm Jennifer Ludden. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Have a great weekend.

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