Recently, the Freakonomics podcast release the first part of a two part episode about the economics of marriage. One of the fascinating features of the show is how much of the common wisdom about marriage is false. For instance, the divorce rate is actually at an all time low since it peaked in the 1960s/1970s.
Here is a description of the show:
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 economistClaudia 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.