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?

If this were true, we would expect to see at least three four other things to be true. First, we'd expect marriages with female breadwinners to be surprisingly rare. Second, we'd expect them to produce unhappier marriages. Third, we might expect these women to cut back on hours, do more household, or make other gestures to make their husbands feel better. Fourth, we'd expect these marriages to end more in divorce. Lo and behold (as you no doubt guessed), the economists found all of those assumptions borne out by the evidence.

"There simply aren't nearly as many relationships with women out-earning men as we would expect [through random pairing]," Kamenica told me. "And women who should out-earn their husbands based on their education and other demographics are more likely to stay at home [and not work] than the similar women who don't out-earn the husbands," Kamenica said.

But that's not the most surprising finding from their research, he added. The most surprising thing was that wives who earn more from paid work also report doing significantly more chores around the house. This doesn't make much sense, intuitively. For women and men at all income levels, more work in the office usually leads to less time spent doing chores at home. But suddenly, when a wife earns more than her husband, her hours spent on chores and childcare go up.

"Classical economics can't explain that increase," Kamenica said. "The only way to make sense of it is compensatory behavior." In English, please? "Maybe the husband feels threatened, so she does more of the cooking, even though she earns more."

The economists found the exact same trends living in Canada. Not only did they find a "sharp decrease in the number of couples once the wife's income exceeds the husband's," but also they found no correlation between divorce and income ... except when the wife earned more than her husband.

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One hundred years ago, husbands and wives specialized. He worked for pay. She worked at home. But with married women working more and more, this paper suggests gender norms are changing slower than gender economics, and many women still aren't comfortable out-earning their boyfriends -- and many men still aren't comfortable earning less than their wives.

Well, they'd better get comfortable! Women are going to be the primary breadwinners in more and more families for so many reasons  -- (1) the shift from brawn economy to service economy; (2) women's growing share of college degrees; and (3) sexism softening among male-dominated industries as women establish themselves in more positions of power. A national aversion to successful wives is a really bad recipe for economic growth and family formation. Get over it, guys. It's a woman's world, now.

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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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