Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Culture, Marriage, and Mr. Mom

As a follow up to yesterday's post I was thinking more about culture and marriage. I think I was a bit too quick to dismiss that cultural changes have something to do with divergent marriage rates between the working class and the rest.

To get at why this is, I need to back up a bit. Conservative critics often try to frame the issue as a shift from marriage being about procreation to instead being about love and personal self-fulfillment, which they see as getting away from the true purpose of marriage. I think this view is wrong in two ways.

First, marriage was never really about procreation, it would be more accurate to say that it is about creating a household. It has never been unusual in the west for people to marry past marriageable age. Marriage was often used for other socioeconomic purposes, primarily the transfer of property, though also for simple companionship and mutual support.

The notion that love marriages have displaced older firms is also misplaced. First of all, many people fall in love with people they have absolutely no intention of ever marrying. It's not at all uncommon for young people to talk about how they love someone that "just isn't marriage material."

I'd say this is what we are observing in the marriage statistics. People continue to marry not because of procreation and not because of love, they marry because they find someone they want to form a household with. Not that love, and often procreation, aren't part of this, but most women make a distinction between falling in love with the loser boyfriend whose band is always going to make it big after the next gig and someone they actually want to spend their life with (similar, but more traditional criteria, would separate marriageable women from mistresses).

As I said in the last post, a combination of the removal of repressive and exploitative institutions impacting women's life prospects and the decline of good working class jobs explains much of this.

But I do think there is room for a cultural explanation to contribute to this. Specifically, the relative strength of gender roles in the working class as opposed to middle and upper classes. While my information is solely anecdotal, more working class people I'm acquainted with maintain more traditional attitudes towards gender roles, they want dinner on the table when they get home and expect to be the primary (though no longer sole) income in their family, than do people from more middle class and especially educated backgrounds.

Using household formation, rather than procreation or love, as the basis for why people marry show the relevance of this. Men that are willing to support their wife's career by playing a greater role in maintaining the household, such as cooking, cleaning, and child rearing, will still be viable marriage prospects even if they contribute relatively little economically. However, men who insist on traditional gender roles who aren't succeeding economically, even if they are someone a woman loves and procreates with, won't succeed in the marriage market. It's also unclear if individuals that can't contribute to a household actually improve prospects for children, while the men that women are choosing to marry certainly do there's no reason to draw a similar inference from men that women don't consider "potential marriage material."

So if we want to tackle the divide between the middle and working class on marriage I think the first place to start is socioeconomic determinants, primarily a return to a lifetime employment model and long term skills acquisition (and good jobs generally). Insofar as we want to act through cultural mechanisms I think that initiatives aimed at promoting fatherhood are missing the point and unlikely to have a discernible impact. Instead, we should be targeting cultural attitudes towards gender roles which lead to working class men being less likely to become involved in traditional household chores than the Mr. Moms that are becoming increasingly common in educated families.

So my advice to Conservatives that want to promote marriage through culture, focus on cooking classes, diaper changing, and making wearing an apron seem manly. I think this would have a much greater impact than any of the strategies I regularly see in newspaper columns on marriage. For men to marry they MUST contribute to the household since women can now do this on their own, if they can't compete in the labor market they have to learn another way to do this.

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