Marriage and Divorce: Changes and their Driving Forces

The family is not a static institution. In recent decades, marriage rates have fallen, divorce rates have risen, and the defining characteristics of mar- riage have changed. The economic approach to the family seeks to explain these trends by reference to models that can also explain how and why families form. Gary Becker’s (1981) Treatise on the Family proposed a theory based on “production complementarities,” in which husband and wife specialize in the market and domestic spheres, respectively. Production complementarities also arise in the production and rearing of one’s own children. However, production complementarities—at least as initially described—are decreasingly central to mod- ern family life. Increased longevity and declining fertility mean that most of one’s adult life is spent without one’s own children in the household. Also, the rise in marital formation at older ages, including remarriage, means that many families form with no intention of producing children. Moreover, increases in female labor force participation suggest that household specialization has either declined or, at least taken on a different meaning.
These changes have come about as what is produced in the home has been dramatically altered both by the emergence of labor-saving technology in the home and by the development of service industries that allow much of what was once provided by specialized homemakers to be purchased in the market. The availability of birth control and abortion has affected the potential consequences of sex both in and out of marriage, while changes in divorce laws have altered the terms of the marital bargain. These forces also have important feedback effects, changing the pool of marriageable singles across the age distribution, thereby affecting search, marriage, remarriage, and the extent of “churning” in the marriage market.

Written by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers. To read the full article, click here.

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