The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis has the following handy chart showing the long decline in men’s employment in the US (shaded areas represent recessions):
During this same time period the strength of marriage as an institution has declined as well. Out of wedlock births are up (source):
The percentage of the population which is married is going down:
Median age of first marriage is going up (Source):
The closest to good news for marriage is that divorce rates stopped increasing after reaching 22 per 1,000 couples (per year) in 1980. However, remarriage rates are in a steep decline:
Conventional wisdom is that the decline in men’s labor force participation and the weakening of marriage as an institution are linked, but only in one direction. The standard narrative is that as men have (for whatever reason) worked less, marriage has been weakened because men are no longer filling the role of breadwinner. There is certainly some logic here, and this must be a least part of the explanation. However, in asserting that the connection works in only one direction the standard narrative requires a series of incredible assumptions.
The first assumption conventional wisdom requires is that a marriage based culture doesn’t create powerful incentives for married men to work hard and maximize their earnings. Denying the incentive marriage provides to men to work harder has left a cottage industry of sociologists and economists scratching their heads trying to figure out why marriage makes men more productive and doesn’t do the same for women. This incentive is denied despite the fact that we implicitly recognize that it is a powerful motivating force in other contexts. Every family court judge in the land knows that marriage creates strong incentives for men to work harder, which is why courts feel the need to assign income quotas (imputed income) to divorced men in order to keep them working as hard after the divorce as they did while married.
The second assumption is that the desire to marry in a marriage based culture doesn’t create an incentive for young men to work hard to signal breadwinner capability or at least breadwinner potential. To believe this, one would have to assume that young men aren’t aware that women place a high value on a man’s employment and earnings status when selecting a prospective husband. This is absurd. The reality is that sex is a powerful motivator for men (young and old); just ask any marketer.
The third assumption is that feminism and the sexual revolution never happened, or at least that they didn’t fundamentally change marriage patterns. Under this assumption, the only reason women are delaying or forgoing marriage is because women simply can’t find men with jobs. Yet we know this isn’t true. Feminists have completed a long and wildly successful march through all of our institutions, and young women are quite open about their plans to maximize their period of casual sex and only marry once they start to see their window of fertility close. The reality is that women are delaying marriage not because marriagable men are scarce, but because they perceive them as so abundant they don’t feel the need to hurry and lock one down.
In a marriage based society, getting sexual access to the most attractive women requires men to work hard to signal provider status. After the wedding, men feel the responsibility which comes with the position of head of the household. Both of these are extremely powerful incentives for men to work hard and maximize their earnings. However, we have moved from a marriage based/incentive structure for men to a quota/coercion based society. As a result, we are seeing a shift in men’s attitudes about work.
Tying this back to the chart on men’s employment, what this means is one of two things is going on:
1) The entire reduction in men’s earnings and labor force participation is due to the loss of incentives which were in place when we were a marriage based society.
2) Structural forces have reduced men’s participation in the workforce (a shifting economy, global trade, an increase in welfare/disability payments, etc), while at the same time men’s incentive to push past these obstacles has been greatly reduced. Put another way, we have reduced men’s incentive to work hard at exactly the time we need them working their hardest. Even worse, each of these two problems feeds the other in a vicious circle. Weaker incentives for men to excel results in a weaker economy, which weakens marriage, which then further weakens the incentives for men to excel.
No matter how you view it, we are paying a huge price for our decision to move from a marriage based family structure to a child support family model. Moreover, this price is going to continue to increase as the inertia left over from the former model fades away.
Edit Oct 6 2014: Updated the remarriage chart to one showing the correct time scale.