Equality in Marriages Grows, and So Does Class Divide
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The Don Drapers of the world used to marry their secretaries. Now they marry fellow executives, who could very well earn more than they do.
With more marriages of equals, reflecting deep changes in American families and society at large, the country is becoming more segregated by class.
“It’s this notion of this growing equality between husbands and wives having this paradoxical effect of growing inequality across households,” said Christine Schwartz, a sociologist who studies the topic at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
From Cinderella to Kate Middleton, fictional and real-life fairy tales have told of women marrying up. But it has been a long time since women said they went to college to earn a “Mrs. degree.
” In more recent cultural touchstones — “The Intern,” with Anne Hathaway, and “Opening Belle,” the novel and soon-to-be Reese Witherspoon movie — the protagonists are highly successful women with husbands who don’t work.
(Spoiler alert: Conflict ensues.)
These changes have been driven by women’s increasing education and labor force participation, new gender roles, and the rise of what social scientists call assortative mating.
Assortative mating is the idea that people marry people themselves, with similar education and earnings potential and the values and lifestyle that come with them.
It was common in the early 20th century, dipped in the middle of the century and has sharply risen in recent years — a pattern that roughly mirrors income inequality in the United States, according to research by Robert Mare, a sociologist at the University of California, Los Angeles.
People are now more ly to marry people with similar educational attainment — even after controlling for differences between men and women, the fact that women were once less ly to attend college.
Even though the typical husband still makes more than his wife, the marital pay gap among opposite-sex couples has shrunk significantly in the decades since women started entering the work force en masse. Today, wives over all make 78 percent of what their husbands make, according to an Upshot analysis of annual survey data from the Census Bureau. That’s up from 52 percent in 1970.
In opposite-sex marriages in which both spouses work some amount of time, 29 percent of wives earn more than their husbands do, up from 23 percent in the 1990s and 18 percent in the 1980s, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The marriage pay gap varies by education, profession and class. Husbands who are dentists have the greatest pay difference with their working wives, who earn 47 cents for every dollar their husbands earn. Generally, couples in which men have high-earning, white-collar jobs have the largest marital pay gap, while men in service jobs bartending and child care earn less than their wives.
ImageAlena and Matt Taylor at home in Oakland, Calif. A management consultant, she earns 40 percent more than her husband, a nonprofit executive. “It has felt a nonissue,” Mr. Taylor said.Credit…Jason Henry for The New York Times
These differences have to do with the nature of the jobs. Hourly workers have a smaller gender pay gap in general. High-paying jobs generally have the least flexibility and the longest hours — which means someone has to pick up the slack at home, and families can afford for one spouse to work less.
The marital pay gap still exists in part because women earn less than men in the economy as a whole, making 79 cents for a man’s dollar.
It reflects the stickiness of gender roles at work and at home: Marriage significantly depresses women’s earnings, and the arrival of children has an even stronger effect. Men, meanwhile, tend to earn more after having children, and studies show that’s because employers see mothers as less committed to work and fathers as doubly committed to breadwinning.
The nature of marriage itself is changing. It used to be about the division of labor: Men sought homemakers, and women sought breadwinners.
But as women’s roles changed, marriage became more about companionship, according to research by two University of Michigan economists, Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers (who also contributes to The Upshot).
Now, people marry others they enjoy spending time with, and that tends to be people themselves.
“Husbands and wives had different roles in different spheres, so that was the opposites-attract view of marriage,” Mr. Wolfers said. “Today you want people with shared passions, similar interests to you, similar career goals, similar goals for the kids.”
Another reason people are finding mates themselves is that they are marrying later, so they know more about their partners’ prospects and increasingly meet at work.
People were least ly to marry those with similar educational backgrounds around the 1950s, according to Mr. Mare’s research, when people married very young.
Americans are increasingly able to make their own romantic choices personal preferences, free from family or religious expectations, he found.
American society has also become more segregated geographically; people tend to live near others with similar educations and earnings. Researchers have linked the increase in so-called power couples, in which both partners have a college degree, to the fact that educated people are more ly now to live in big cities — so the people they date tend to be educated, too.
Technology could also play a role: Dating apps and sites let people filter their potential partners before they even have a conversation.
The change is happening internationally, too. In 40 percent of couples in which both partners work, they belong to the same or neighboring income bracket, up from 33 percent two decades ago, according to 2011 data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which includes 34 countries. Two-thirds have the same level of education.
Despite being more common, these marriages are a break from tradition, and that can present problems.
Marriages in which the woman earns more are less ly to form in the first place, which accounts for 23 percent of the overall decline in marriage rates since 1970, according to a large study by the economists Marianne Bertrand and Emir Kamenica of the University of Chicago and Jessica Pan of the National University of Singapore. Using census data from 1970 to 2000, they analyzed the choices people made in so-called marriage markets, age, education, race and where they lived.
When such marriages do form, the women become more ly to seek jobs beneath their potential or to stop working entirely, and the marriages are more ly to end in divorce. Paradoxically, wives who earn more also do significantly more housework and child care than their husbands do, perhaps to make their husbands feel less threatened, the economists said.
Bill Doherty, a marriage therapist and professor at the University of Minnesota, said he had seen women who were more professionally successful than their husbands compensate by building up their husbands’ careers and playing down their own.
“It’s kind of if he’s shorter than she is, she doesn’t wear heels,” he said. “It’s in the cultural DNA that if anyone should be bigger, richer, more successful, it should be the man.”
When these couples struggle, it is often over issues sexual desire or the division of housework and child care, Dr. Doherty said, particularly if the woman loses respect for the man and the man feels insecure about his role in the family.
Yet that dynamic seems to be changing, he and other researchers said, because young people have more egalitarian views about marriage and the division of labor.
Alena Taylor, 28, a management consultant, earns 40 percent more than her husband, Matt, 31, a nonprofit executive. “It has felt a nonissue,” Mr. Taylor said.
They said they knew that conflict could arise over their division of labor when they have children, including because she travels more and he has greater flexibility. “Because my earnings potential is much higher than his, over time we’ll have to figure that out,” she said.
Researchers say the rise in assortative mating is closely linked to income inequality. The two have increased in tandem, Dr. Schwartz, the sociologist from the University of Wisconsin, said: “People who are married tend to be more advantaged, and on top of that, more advantaged people are marrying people themselves, so those people tend to be doubly advantaged.”
The effects could become more pronounced in future generations. Studies tell us that parents’ income and education have an enormous effect on children’s opportunities and achievements — and children today are more ly to grow up in homes in which parents are more similar than different.
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Even Breadwinning Wives Don’t Get Equality at Home
Why are Americans so reluctant to acknowledge wives who are breadwinners? One reason is that couples in the U.S. continue to idealize and privilege a family structure with a male breadwinner and a female homemaker.
Recognizing women as breadwinners threatens the idea that a family fits into that mold.
When wives earn more than husbands, couples often reframe the value of each spouse’s work to elevate the husband’s work as being more prestigious and downplaying the importance of the woman’s job.
Breadwinning wives also don’t get parity in how household chores are divvied up. As wives’ economic dependence on their husbands increases, women tend to take on more housework.
But the more economically dependent men are on their wives, the less housework they do. Even women with unemployed husbands spend considerably more time on household chores than their spouses.
In other words, women’s success in the workplace is penalized at home.
Read: Emasculated men refuse to do chores—except cooking
One possible explanation for this is that by outearning their husbands, wives worry that they are breaking norms on gender expectations.
The same norms are at play for men in female-dominated occupations, such as nursing, who are more ly than other men to do more masculine types of housework power-hosing the deck or mowing the lawn.
Women in male-dominated occupations, such as law enforcement, tend to do more feminine tasks such as cooking and washing the dishes. These men and women are “correcting” for their jobs by asserting their masculinity and femininity through housework.
I’ve seen these processes play out in my own research on how married couples with kids respond to men’s versus women’s unemployment.
After interviewing dozens of heterosexual, upper-middle-class families in which one spouse was unemployed, I found that while men’s unemployment was framed as a grave problem in need of immediate rectification, women’s unemployment was not.
That was true even when women had earned half or more of the total household income. (The couples I talked with were granted anonymity to talk openly about their family situations.)
The husband of one unemployed wife who for decades had earned about three to four times his salary told me that he would “be perfectly happy to have her just sort of hang out and enjoy life.
” He felt no particular urgency for his wife to find another job, instead emphasizing that his income alone is enough to support the family.
Of course, that would mean dramatically downscaling the family’s lifestyle—replete with vacations abroad, a house in an affluent neighborhood, and expectations of sending their teenage son to an expensive college.
Read: From breadmaker to breadwinner
But it’s not just men who are keen on enforcing the notion that they should be the family’s earner in chief. Wives play a crucial role in framing husbands as breadwinners too.
A lawyer who had been the breadwinner in her marriage told me that after she lost her job, she turned her focus to her husband’s business and how he could grow it, instead of worrying about how she could find another job to ensure that their family remains financially stable.
Ironically, her educational credentials and prior work experience mean that she is actually positioned to bring in more money than her husband.
Instead of focusing on how the unemployed woman could get her next job, the couples I talked with focused their attention on ensuring that the husband’s career was flourishing. But when a husband loses his job, there is a frenetic focus on his next job.
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