Marriage and the Dual-Career Family Research Paper

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1. Changes in Marriage

The dual-career family begins with marriage, which has changed in important ways over the last century. In the US, men and women are delaying marriage into their mid-to-late twenties, often entering cohabitation first. Divorce rates are high and stable, but rates of remarriage have fallen, so that a larger proportion of adults are unmarried now than in the past. In 1970, unmarried people made up 28 percent of the adult population. In 1996, 40 percent of all adults were unmarried. Seventy-one percent of women born in the early 1950s had married by age 25, compared to 54 percent of those born in the late 1960s (Raley 2000). In fact, the shift away from marriage has been so dramatic for blacks that now a majority of black men and women are not married, compared to about a third of white men and women (Waite 1995). Similar changes in marriage patterns have taken place in most European countries; recent cohorts are marrying at older ages and over a wider range of ages than in the past.

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In addition, European countries differ substantially in marriage ages. The Nordic countries of Sweden, Denmark, and Iceland show the highest average ages at marriage for women (around age 29) and the Eastern European countries of Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland the lowest (around age 22). Since societies with relatively high age at marriage also tend to be those in which many people never marry, this diversity suggests that marriage is a more salient component of family in some European countries than others (Kiernan 2000).

Countries in Europe also show a great deal of variation in the proportion of women in marital unions. Marriage is most common in Greece and Portugal, where over 60 percent of women ages 25–29 are married, and least common in the Nordic countries, Italy, and Spain where a third or less are.

In fact, women’s increasing commitment to employment and their own career is an often-cited reason for delayed marriage, nonmarriage, and the rise of cohabitation; marriage has declined because women have become economically independent of it. As more women work for pay and as their earnings increase, according to this argument, the economic benefits of marriage fall and divorcing or remaining single becomes both a more feasible and a more attractive option (Becker 1981, McLanahan and Casper 1995). Declines in the earnings of young men, relative to young women, this reasoning goes, also reduce the economic attractiveness of marriage (Oppenheimer and Lew 1995).

An alternative argument sees marriage as beneficial even for women with earnings adequate to support themselves (and for men regardless of women’s earnings). Marriage improves the economic well being of its members through the economies of scale, returns to specialization, and the risk sharing it brings. The earnings of wives add to family income, provide insurance against the risk of economic shortfall, and allow families to adjust income to changes in economic needs as children are born and grow to adulthood. These two-earner marriages also provide companionship and collaboration, with spouses sometimes each playing a unique role and sometimes playing similar roles, depending on their abilities and the needs of the family (Goldscheider and Waite 1991, Nock 1998, Oppenheimer 1994).

2. Women’s Employment

The rise in women’s labor force participation in many countries over the last half-century has been so dramatic as to constitute a revolution in women’s lives and roles. In the US, women workers now make up just under half of the labor force. In the early 1960s, only one woman in three was working full time, compared to 86 percent of men. An additional 16 percent of women worked part time. Half of women did not hold a paid job at all. But the revolution had already begun. Women moved from work in the home to work in the office or factory, slowly at first, and then more quickly. Between 1963 and 1975 both women’s full time and part time work increased. The shift from work in the home into part time paid employment pretty much stops by the mid 1970s, so that almost all the growth in the 1980s and the 1990s comes from a rapid increase in women’s full time work. By 1997, 57 percent of all women were working full time, with another 23 percent working part time. The share of US women who did not work at all for pay shrank to just one in five in 1997—four out of five adult women now hold paying jobs, compared to one in two in 1963.

Many countries have seen similar expansions of women’s employment, with very high proportions of women in the labor force in a number of developing countries, such as China, Vietnam, and Bangladesh. Islamic countries generally have low to moderate levels of women’s employment (20–50 percent) and Asian countries moderate to high levels (50–80 percent) (United Nations 2000). Within Europe, the Nordic countries show moderately high levels of economic activity among women (60–65 percent), and the Southern European countries moderately low levels (30–40 percent). Married women—especially married mothers—were the shock troops in the revolution in women’s employment, dramatically altering their allocation of time to work for pay vs. work in the home. Employment of single women without children changed little over the last 30 or 40 years. These women were about as likely to work full-time in 1997 as in 1963, a little more likely to be working part-time and a little less likely not to be working. Single mothers changed their work behavior more but not dramatically—58 percent worked full time in 1997 compared to half in 1963. One single mother in three did not work for pay in 1963, compared to one in five in 1997. But changes in women’s employment were driven by the choices made by married women, both because many more women are married than not, and because the work choices of married women changed much more than the work choices of unmarried women. Both married mothers and married women without children are much more likely to work for pay and to work full time now than in the early 1960s. In 1963, 41 percent of married women with no children at home worked full time compared to 60 percent in 1997 and the share not working outside the home fell from 43 percent to 19 percent. But married mothers were quite unlikely to work full time in 1963, when fewer than one in four worked this much. By 1997, the proportion working full time had more than doubled to 49 percent. Sixty percent of married mothers did not work outside the home in 1963; by 1997 less than one in four was not employed (Waite and Nielsen 2001). Changes in the employment of married women were similar to the US in Canada and Australia, even more dramatic in the Nordic countries, where over 80 percent of wives are in the labor force, and more modest in Germany, Belgium, and The Netherlands (Spain and Bianchi 1996). In all these countries, the employment of married women creates dual-career couples, while the employment of married mothers forms dual-career families.

3. Working Families

Perhaps as dramatic and far reaching as the alternations in the structure of the family are the changes in the way its members use their time. In the early 1960s in the US, among those in the prime working ages most married couples followed the male breadwinner female homemaker model; 56 percent had only one earner. The dual-income family was uncommon—both spouses worked full-time in 21 percent of married couples. By 1997, only a quarter of married couples had one earner. In 44 percent of married couples both spouses worked full time, and in another 24 percent one worked full-time and one part-time.

The shift toward the dual-worker family was even more dramatic for couples with children (Waite and Nielsen 2001). Even 30 years ago, most children living with a single parent did not have a parent at home fulltime; now most children in married couple families don’t either. Among children in married parent families, 60 percent lived in a breadwinner homemaker family in 1963. By 1997 the situation had reversed so that 57 percent lived in families that had more than one earner, most often both working fulltime. Families with a stay-at-home mother became a minority and dual-worker families the most popular choice. Families gained the income the wife earned on the job but lost her time in the home.

4. Work in the Home

Of course, the adults in families have almost always worked, but the shift in the site of women’s labor from inside to outside the home changed many other things for families. First, families had more money. Second, families had less of the woman’s time in the home. For a while, women in the US seemed to bear the brunt of this change, adding paid employment to their household management and maintenance tasks. But recent evidence suggests that US women—both employed and not employed—have reduced and men have increased the number of hours that they spend on housework, so that, while not equal, the time contributions of men and women are much closer than they were in the past. For all men and women, the weekly housework gap has fallen from 25 hours in 1965 to 7.5 hours in 1995, and the housework gap between married men and women from 29 to 9 hours per week. The housework gap is smaller in dual-earner than in one-earner couples, because as the wife’s hours of paid work increase, her own hours of housework decline whereas her husband’s housework hours increase (Bianchi et al. 2000).

Although information on time spent on household work is available for only a small number of countries, the pattern is consistent; women spend at least twice as much time on housework, on average, as men do, even in countries like Latvia and Lithuania where hours of paid employment are high for both men and women. Women’s typically lower hours of paid employment and higher hours of work in the household mean that, in many countries, including Japan, Korea, Australia, The Netherlands, and Norway, total hours of paid and unpaid work approximately balance, on average, if not in any particular family. But in other countries, like Spain, Austria, the United Kingdom, Italy, and Lithuania, women work five or more total hours, on average, more than men do, either because their average hours of housework are quite high or because they work long hours at both paid and unpaid work (United Nations 2000, Table 5–6A).

4.1 Family Hours of Work

Although Americans feel very short of time, the average employed adult today works about the same number of hours as the average employed adult did 30 years ago. But the time deficit is real; a higher proportion of people are working very long hours (balanced by more people working short hours) and from many more couples jointly contributing 80–100 hours to work per week (Jacobs and Gerson 2001). This latter change has come about as a direct result of the movement of married women into full-time jobs, with the consequent shift from breadwinner homemaker to dual-earner families. Family hours of paid work are also quite high in the Nordic countries, where a high proportion of married women are employed, and in Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, and Hungary, countries in which women work, on average, quite substantial numbers of hours (United Nations 2000).

5. The Impact of Marriage on Career

For most adults, work life and family life are intertwined. The career one chooses defines, in part, the kind of family life one can have. Careers that demand long hours, frequent travel, irregular or rotating schedules, or overtime work with little or no notice constrain time with family and may also affect the quality of that time (Hochschild 1997, Presser 1997). Careers that carry social status, high incomes, health and retirement benefits, and interesting work bring financial and psychological resources to the families of the workers as well as to the workers themselves. Employment and career also affect the chances that people get and remain married. At the same time, marriage affects career choices and success, and family demands may lead men and women to choose different jobs than they otherwise would, to move for a spouse’s job, or to work more or less than they would prefer. As might be expected, however, the relationship between the career and family choices is quite different for men and women.

5.1 Marriage and Men’s Careers

Marriage is good for men’s careers. When men marry they tend to earn more, work more, and have better jobs (Nock 1998). The ‘marriage premium’ in men’s earnings seems to be at least five percent at younger ages and considerably more at older ages (Korenman and Neumark 1991). Nor is men’s marriage premium a strictly American phenomenon; it appears in the vast majority of developed countries and is generally quite sizeable (Schoeni 1995). Married men are generally more productive than unmarried men, receive higher performance ratings, and are more likely to be promoted (Korenman and Neumark 1991). Scholars link this higher productivity to the more orderly lives of married than single men, to married men’s motivation to support their families and the increased work effort this produces, and to investments by the wife in the husband’s career (Grossbard-Shechtman 1993).

At the same time, better career prospects and career achievements foster marriage and marital stability for men. Higher-earning men are more likely to get married and marry at younger ages than men with lower earnings (Bergstrom and Schoeni 1996). And high-earning men are less likely to divorce than those with lower earnings, with unemployment especially damaging to marital stability (Grossbard-Shechtman 1993).

5.2 Marriage and Women’s Careers

While marriage improves men’s career attainments, for women it often triggers tradeoffs between work and family that lead to a decline in employment, hours of work, and earnings. Many of these changes appear not at marriage but with the birth of the first child, when some women increase their time at home to provide care for the baby (Klerman and Leibowitz 1999). Even when mothers work continuously, the demands of childrearing detract from their earning capacity. Comparing US women with similar work histories, Waldfogel (1997) finds that one child still reduces a woman’s earnings by almost four percent and two children or more reduces hourly earnings by almost 12 percent. Women do not pay a marriage penalty, but they do pay a substantial motherhood penalty, whether or not they marry.

Marriage and motherhood also seem to decrease the chances that women follow a career trajectory. Even among middle-class, dual-earner couples, most do not pursue two demanding careers but instead typically reduce and scale back their commitment to paid work to mitigate the impact of the job on family life. Often but not always, the wife does the cutting back, generally when children are young but also at other points in the life course (Becker and Moen 1999). As a result, relatively few women manage to achieve both career and family. Women with successful work careers less often marry or remain married than other women (Blair-Loy 1999, Han and Moen 1999). And the substantial majority of women with children, even those with college degrees, do not achieve career success. Among women who graduated from college in the late 1960s through the late 1970s, Goldin (1997) estimates that between 18 percent and 24 percent achieved both a career and a family.

6. Financial Well-being

Married couples typically have both higher incomes and greater wealth than unmarried individuals, even after income is adjusted to take into account the number of people in the family (Lupton and Smith forthcoming, Waite and Nielsen 2001). Among married couples, those with two earners have higher incomes, on average, than those with one-earner. In the US, two-earner families have pulled ahead economically as their incomes have increased faster than the incomes of one-earner families. In 1970, the median income of dual-earner families was 1.32 times as high as that of married couple families in which the wife did not work for pay (Spain and Bianchi 1996). In 1998, the ratio was 1.79 (United States Bureau of the Census 2000). But the higher income of two-earner families must be adjusted for the loss of home production. One estimate suggests that dual-earner families need about 35 percent more income to have the same standard of living as families with one spouse—almost always the wife—working full time in the home, to make up for the goods and services produced at home and for clothes, transportation, and other costs of employment (Lazear and Michael 1988).

Women and men are marrying later and spending more time unmarried than in the past. In many countries, levels of education have risen dramatically, especially for women, at the same time that family size has fallen. These changes reduce the need for women’s time at home and increase the rewards for their time in paid employment, pushing them and their families toward dual-worker and working parent families.


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