Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Economics Behind Changing Marriage

Justin Wolfers and Betsy Stevenson (who were in graduate school with me and are now at Wharton) use basic economics to explain how and why marriage is changing. I highly recommend reading the whole thing. Here are some teaser excerpts:

So what drives modern marriage? We believe that the answer lies in a shift from the family as a forum for shared production, to shared consumption. In case the language of economic lacks romance, let’s be clearer: modern marriage is about love and companionship. Most things in life are simply better shared with another person: this ranges from the simple pleasures such as enjoying a movie or a hobby together, to shared social ties such as attending the same church, and finally, to the joint project of bringing up children. Returning to the language of economics, the key today is consumption complementarities — activities that are not only enjoyable, but are more enjoyable when shared with a spouse. We call this new model of sharing our lives “hedonic marriage”.

So is marriage doomed? Marriage in which one person specializes in the home while the other person specializes in the market is indeed doomed. The opportunity cost of having women stay out of the labor force is likely to continue to rise — particularly as young women are surpassing men in educational attainment and higher education is becoming more important for market success. The reach of markets will continue to expand, allowing individuals and families to reap the returns to specialization through market-mediated trade with other specialists, rather than requiring a domestic specialist in each home.


Thus marriage isn’t dead, it is, again, transforming. Hedonic marriage is different from productive marriage. In a world of specialization, the old adage was that “opposites attract,” and it made sense for husband and wife to have different interests in different spheres of life. Today, it is more important that we share similar values, enjoy similar activities, and find each other intellectually stimulating. Hedonic marriage leads people to be more likely to marry someone of their similar age, educational background, and even occupation. As likes are increasingly marrying likes, it isn’t surprising that we see increasing political pressure to expand marriage to same-sex couples.

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