A Marriage Mystery: Why Aren't More Wives Outearning Their Husbands?

With women taking more than half of the country's new bachelor's degrees, many of them should be the chief breadwinners in their families. They're not. How come?

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The rise of women in the workforce has been hailed by The Atlantic as not only the greatest economic development in the last 50 years, but also the most positive overall development in the whole global economy. But a new study suggests that, for working women in the U.S., there is a surprising cost to earning more than your partner. Evidence suggests that couples are less likely to get married if the woman's income exceeds her partner's. Once married, a wife earning more than her husband is more likely to be unhappy in the marriage, more likely to feel pressured to take fewer hours, and more likely to get divorced.

To fully unpack this thing, let's start with a quick and dirty overview of the marriage market, as economist are fond of call it rather un-romantically. In the last 50 years, marriage has been in decline, technically speaking, as the share of adults who are married has fallen from 72 percent to 51 percent of the 18-and-over population. Sounds like one big marriage drought, but in fact, there are two marriage markets (at least). Among the most-educated and highest-earning men and women, marriage rates are generally high and rising, although these couples are also getting hitched a bit later in life than they used to. Meanwhile, the bottom half of female earners have seen their marriage rates decline by 25 percentage points since 1970. Here's the picture from the Hamilton Project:

The classical economic explanation for the decline of marriage among the low-income starts by blaming the guys. Sorry, guys. This theory of marriage starts with "gains from trade" (a wonky term for "what each side brings to the table"). You'll note that declining marriage rates correlate roughly with declining male earnings (see graph below, also from the Hamilton Project). Men simply offer less financial security than they used to -- especially compared with women, who are more financially self-sufficient than ever.

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This classic approach to marriage economics might explain why there are fewer overall marriages. But it fails to explain something that might be even more interesting: Why there are so very few marriages where women earn more than their husbands, and why such marriages are so troubled.

This story is best told through pictures. Here's the distribution of marriages by the wife's share of household income. As you can see, there's a sharp drop-off after the .5 mark, where the women earns more than 50 percent of the household income. That means it's surprisingly rare to see a woman earn 60 percent or more of a couple's income today, even though women earn a similar share of all today's bachelor degrees.

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This drop-off is simply too steep to be explained by randomness or classical economics. If men and women were forming marriages without concern for relative incomes, we'd expect a smoother distribution curve, more like this guy ...

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If classical economics doesn't do the trick, maybe it's because the dearth of female breadwinners has little to do with classical economics. In a cool new paper, Marianne Bertrand, Jessica Pan, and Emir Kamenica pose a theory that some people might find controversial but others might find intuitive: What if there's a deficit of marriages where the wife is the top earner because -- to put things bluntly -- husbands hate being out-earned by their wives, and wives hate living with husbands who resent them?

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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