Economic Factors That Shook Modern Marriage

I mused in Wednesday’s post about movement in the seam of family make-or-buy decisions over the last 200 years. As a result of the increasing scope of markets, and decreasing market prices for many goods and services as a result of technological and industrial changes, people and families substituted “buy” for “make” across numerous goods and services. These changes affected both men and women individually, but also affected both the formation of families as well as dynamics internal to families.

To be sure, as historian John Lauritz Larson quips in his book, The Market Revolution in America, no farm wife lost her job because she stopped spinning her own thread or yarn and instead bought it on the market. And that’s true enough. But he passes over the change in relative economic value as a result of this change, and the impact of that change on family relationships and organization.

Specifically, the economic value of a wife to her husband declined because of the substitution of market-bought yarn for home-produce yarn. First, because the husband no longer needed the wife’s production of fabric, he could buy it on the market. Secondly, it increased the premium on cash, which men, at least men who had exited subsistence production and entered the labor market, due to the need for cash to purchase yarn. The substitution of home-produced textiles for market-purchased textiles thereby decreased the economic value of the wife’s production while increasing the value of the husband’s production.

I use textiles as an illustration. The dynamic repeated itself across numerous goods and services, with change extending well over a century. Not that the trajectory always went in one direction: the spread of washing machines no doubt induced the substitution of some home production for a service that otherwise would have been purchased on the market. Nonetheless, it also made washing less expensive, whether in terms of the opportunity cost of home production or the economic cost on the market. This decreased the implicit economic value of women’s labor in the home.

The family has been reeling in response to these changes, as have relationships between the sexes more generally. Since the 1950s, and still heard today, numerous women complain they do not feel their husbands value their work in the home. This cannot be dismissed as special pleading or only subjective perception. Women feel their work at home is not valued by men because it in fact has become less valuable. These are movements in implicit calculations, to be sure, but they are nonetheless real for being implicit. The seam between families’ make-or-buy decisions has moved dramatically away from “make” and toward “buy” over the last two centuries.

The marriage bargain, usually implicit, can touch different dimensions of life. First, community or solidarity. Husband and wife value each other’s companionship and commit to sustaining that companionship. While that may be a necessary component for strong and happy marriages, as a practical matter, it is not the only reason around which all marriages form. There can be instrumental reasons, economic as well as social. These instrumental reasons may support relationships inclined less on society than others, or even supplant the need or desire for society or companionship. (Jane Austen’s characters recognize and respond to the range of these possibilities and tradeoffs, often explicitly, in her novels.)

Changes wrought by marketization and technology have been dramatic. So dramatic that the terms of the bargain that initially brought a man and a woman together in a marriage can be mooted by those changes within one or two decades. Unless a commitment to solidarity and companionship stand at the center of a marriage, these changes can leave initially satisfied partners feeling dissatisfied, unhappy, even “trapped.” Liberalized divorce laws are both an effect of this change (creating a demand for policy changes that bore fruit in the 1950s and 1960s) as well as a facilitator of increased marital exit, as men and women took advantage of liberalized laws.

Secondly, although relatedly, this change provides a mixed bag for marriage itself. On the one hand, commentators lament the decline in the institution of marriage. Although divorce rates have been declining since the 1980s, this decrease almost certainly results from the decline in couples choosing to get married and the corollary increase in cohabitation.

Nonetheless, if marriages have been increasingly stripped of instrumental reasons for their formation, this then actually makes more singular the role of community or solidarity as the basis for the marriages that do form. They are subsequently stronger and happier than they were in earlier ages when instrumental calculation more often served as the critical basis for marital formation.

To be sure, while marriages that form might be stronger as a result of a decreasing role of instrumental elements in marriage formation, there remains the question of the implications of widespread cohabitation, for both the partners involved as well as for society more generally. Might some marriages formed initially for instrumental reasons mature over the decades into marriages sustained by later-developing appreciation of companionship and solidarity with their partner? That possibility is lost. Additionally, the stratification of marriage formation on the basis of socioeconomic class, with less-affluent individuals cohabiting disproportionately to more-affluent individuals raises questions of the nature of life evolving within the more fragile part of society.

A final implication of the movement in the seam of the “make or buy” is the mass entry of women into the workforce since the late 1960s. In this, women’s experience lagged the movement into the market for men, from home-based production for home consumption to mass production at locales distant from the home, producing for sale on the market. This in turn contributed to secondary effects, such as stagnating wages for men in the 1970s and 1980s.

To be sure, other economic, social, legal and political changes have contributed to discombobulating once-traditional marriage relationships. But the shifting seam of the family’s “make or buy” choices would seem to merit being ranked among the most significant factors.