Making Partners

Illustration by Jacob Thomas

The growing obsolescence of the American marriage—per Pew, just 51 percent of adults are in a lawful union, a record low—contains a second surprising trend. It’s financially independent, freethinking, college-educated people who are keeping the institution alive, marrying at a rate 17 percentage points higher than those with only a high-school education. What accounts for that split? New York’s occasional domestic-affairs commentators, economist Joseph Stiglitz and his wife Anya Schiffrin, advance a few theories.

Anya Schiffrin: People just don’t want to get married until they have enough income. In the Middle Ages, people got married late because they had to save up for a cow or pigs or whatever, and a version of that is happening now. The funny thing is that since life was so nasty and short back then, people’s marriages lasted about as long as today’s. Now everyone lives longer but gets divorced.

Joseph Stiglitz: I’ve also seen statistics suggesting that higher-income people go to church more than people at the bottom, who are working very hard to get by and don’t have time for it. That could provide another explanation for why better-educated people are more likely to marry—they’re living in more structured communities and participating in churches.

A.S.: Obviously for women getting married also means a hell of a lot more work.

J.S.: Is that right?

A.S.: [Laughs.] Well, of course, we divide things up 50-50.

J.S.: In the last 30 years, the median income for a man working full time is still what it was in 1978. There’s been complete stagnation. So in lower-income brackets, both people have to work. It used to be that once women got married, they were basically out of the labor force. They wanted the legal protection of marriage so that their husbands couldn’t just easily dump them off. If both people are working—she gets her Social Security, he gets his Social Security—there’s relatively little benefit to getting married.

A.S.: But it does remain an important part of the culture. There are these ideals that we feel pressured and inspired by even if they’re not realistic. We didn’t get married until I was 41, and I remember talking to Mom about it, wondering if that seemed strange. She said, “Oh, everybody adores an old bride.” And that was true! Lots of my single friends said, “God, if she can get married, so can I.”

J.S.: Another potential factor is Roe v. Wade. There was this study that looked at what fraction of children used to be born within six or seven months of the marriage. It was a significant number! Now that we have abortion, shotgun marriages are much less likely to occur.

A.S.: I’d love to comment on that study, but everything I know about it comes from you. One thing that definitely happens in a marriage, speaking of division of labor, is a division of information. When I was a journalist, I had to pay attention to where the dollar was and what the stock market was doing. Now I can always ask you. And there are a million things you don’t have to pay attention to because you can ask me. All domestic matters, for example.

J.S.: I would say more broadly that it’s everything except economics. Movies, plays, culture …

A.S.: Who’s who, and why do we recognize that person. It really is everything but economics. [Laughs.] It’s dynamic comparative advantage.

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Making Partners