The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Bringing Back the Breadwinner

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

What circumstances would reverse the sharp fall of marriage rates in recent decades? Sociologist Matthijs Kalmijn of Tilburg University in the Netherlands argues that marriage rates would rise if the economy changed in ways that made young men better able to take on the breadwinner role by enhancing their employment prospects. In advancing his empirically grounded argument, Kalmijn acknowledges his debt to Valerie Oppenheimer, an American social theorist he credits with “bringing men back into the debate” over the decline in marriage rates evident throughout the Western world.

At the time that Oppenheimer began her work, the notion that “men’s economic position influenced marriage formation . . . was generally not a popular idea.” What was popular was the belief that the “erosion of marriage” was the inevitable result of “the growing economic role of women in society.” Also popular: the belief that the decline in marriage was the consequence of “value change, and in particular to the increasing need for individual autonomy on the one hand, and the ideological condemnation of traditional institutions like marriage on the other.”

Not persuaded by these arguments, Oppenheimer asserted that marriage rates would not have declined had men not suffered a significant loss in economic status. This loss was evident in “the poor and uncertain economic prospects of young men.” These unfavorable prospects left young men “unable to fulfill the role of breadwinner” and therefore “not . . . attractive marriage partners and fathers,” particularly since they could not promise long-term security. To test Oppenheimer’s hypothesis, Kalmijn parsed data collected between 1994 and 2001 from 17,743 men in thirteen European countries (Denmark, Finland, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Greece). These data largely validate Oppenheimer’s views on the importance of men’s economic status in determining marriage rates.

After analyzing his data, Kalmijn calculated that “the odds of entering a union are 58% higher for employed men than for men who are not employed and not in school. What is more, the numbers indicate that “employed men have a 48% higher odds of marrying rather than cohabiting.” It appears that “nonemployment is less incompatible with cohabitation than with marriage.” Kalmijn likewise reports, “Compared to men with a permanent job, men with a temporary job who enter a union are 23% less likely to choose marriage than cohabitation.” But unlike permanent employment, “school enrollment has a negative effect on union entry” for men, whether the union is wedlock or cohabitation.

Through further investigation, Kalmijn establishes the importance of men’s income, not just their employment status, in determining marriage rates. “My analyses,” Kalmijn writes, “show that income effects are strong and significant, which supports the male breadwinner hypothesis.”

Clearly, Kalmijn has reason to conclude that “by and large, the European evidence supports the theory” advanced by Oppenheimer as to the importance of men’s economic status in determining marriage rates. What is more, Kalmijin sees his findings as in line with findings of American studies. “American research,” he remarks, “generally supports the view that poor economic prospects for men are associated with a delay in marriage. This has been demonstrated for a range of indicators, including employment per se, unstable employment, low earnings, and other indicators of career ‘immaturity.’”

Kalmijn attaches great importance to this international validation of Oppenheimer’s emphasis on men’s economic status as a potent determiner of marriage rates. After all, while some social theorists offered little hope for a renewal of wedlock, “Oppenheimer’s theory has a more optimistic implication for the future of marriage.” After all, with the right changes, “the economic position of young men could improve and this would then have positive repercussions for marriage.”

In assessing Kalmijn’s European findings, Americans will want to remember that European countries vary considerably in the cultural orientations, especially since Kalmijn’s data indicates that “the effects of men’s employment and school enrollment on union formation are stronger in more traditional societies than in more egalitarian ones. Income effects are also weaker in egalitarian societies.” In other words, if the economic circumstances of young men improve in a Red State such as Oklahoma or Kentucky, that improvement will probably translate into a sharper upturn in the marriage rate than the same kind of economic change for young men in a Blue State such as Massachusetts or Washington.

(Matthijs Kalmijn, “The Influence of Men’s Income and Employment on Marriage and Cohabitation: Testing Oppenheimer’s Theory in Europe,” European Journal of Population 27.3 [August 2011]: 269–93.)