Economist Nancy Folbre noted this cultural shift in her article "The Declining Demand for Husbands," in The New York Times. One reason that fewer women are looking to get hitched, suggests Folbre, is that they finally feel they have economic power. In the past, women sought marriage more than men because they had few choices for survival:
Women are willing to pay a higher price for marriage than men if they have few alternatives, as when their opportunities for economic independence are restricted. An increase in the supply of women who want to marry drives the price of marriage down for men.
In other words, if more women than men want/need marriage, men will have the bargaining power. It's simple supply and demand. Historically, that meant men had superior property rights and got to pick and choose their mates. Think of all the homely, dull men married to smart, attractive women!
I've certainly seen that phenomenon. Ten or 15 years ago, almost every unattached single woman over 35 I knew seemed worried—even slightly desperate—about landing a husband. Despite professional or academic accomplishments, some thought of themselves as failures for not hooking a man. Some ended up marrying men who are neither very bright nor cute. A total bummer.
Now, with fewer women desiring marriage, "the terms of marriage move in favor of women," writes Folbre. That means women should have better bargaining power with their suitors and mates about how their relationship will work once they are married:
They are likely to receive a larger share of joint income and leisure time. Husbands become more likely to relinquish some decision-making power and do more housework and child care.
Sounds logical, right? Alas, real life doesn't always follow economic theory. Despite the fact that women are working and increasing their income, that change doesn't always show up on the personal front. Folbre notes:
The changing terms of marriage complicate the effects of women’s improved economic position. On the one hand, men should like the prospect of sharing income with a high-earning woman. On the other hand, they may find it difficult to adjust to a new social role."
What happens, unfortunately, is that people are still stuck to prescribed gender roles. Folbre cites research by Marianne Bertrand, Jessica Pan, and Emir Kamenica that "offer evidence that wives often try to enact traditional gender roles in an apparent effort to reassure their husbands that they are not a threat."
Where does this all lead us? Folbre suggests we are in a bit of a mess: Though fewer women want to get married, men don't seem that interested in changing the gender dynamics to make marriage more appealing. In economic terms, that means we have a highly inefficient system.
So will men (and women) get it—that the new world order demands more fluidity in gender roles? Or will we just roll inefficiently along until the institution of marriage peters out?
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