Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

The Changing Importance of White Women's Economic Prospects for Assortative Mating

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

The Changing Importance of White Women's Economic Prospects for Assortative Mating

Article excerpt

Given recent changes in the labor force participation and economic standing of women, we ask whether a woman's position in the labor market has become a more important determinant of her position in the marriage market. Unlike much prior research on trends over time in assortative mating, we take an individual-level approach to the analysis and rely on improved measures of labor market position, such as measuring wives' wages before marriage and considering multiple indicators of husbands' longer term economic standing. Our analysis relies on data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Young Women (N = 759) and the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (N = 767). Our results are consistent with growth over time in the importance of women's earnings potential in determining their marriage prospects.

Key Words: family, mate selection, socioeconomic factors, United States.

The question of who marries whom is a central organizing feature of social life. Prior research has established that people tend to seek spouses with particular characteristics and prefer to marry within their own social group (e.g., Fu, 2001; Hout, 1982; Kalmijn, 1991; Mare, 1991). Departures from homogamy have also attracted attention among social scientists because such patterns of assortative mating convey important information regarding which individuals and groups perceive themselves to be social equals. Gender asymmetries in the socioeconomic characteristics of marriage partners have been of particular interest because they are thought to reflect culturally important differences in the social and economic roles of men and women. Indeed, theory from economics and sociology suggests that marriage markets may differentially reward the economic characteristics of men and women, with good labor market position a more highly valued trait in potential husbands than potential wives.

Yet recent changes in factors related to marriage in contemporary societies-particularly the improved labor market position of women and increases in their labor force participation-have contributed to social scientists' growing interest in investigating shifts over time in patterns of assortative mating. To the extent that current cohorts of women spend more of their lives in the labor market than did previous cohorts, we might expect an increased emphasis on women's economic characteristics for marriage. Indeed, a model of marriage in which both men and women seek spouses with good labor market prospects underlies much recent research on marriage timing and assortative mating. Some empirical evidence does point to an increasing association between the educational attainment and occupational characteristics of spouses in the United States (e.g., Kalmijn, 1994; Marc, 1991). However, most prior research has examined cross-sectional samples of marriages existing at a particular point in time and has not directly considered the contribution of women's wages to their position in the marriage market. Both factors suggest the need for additional research to test hypotheses about the changing importance of women's economic prospects for marriage behavior.

The set of preferences and constraints underlying observed patterns of assortative mating is complex, as is the conceptualization and measurement of assortative mating outcomes themselves. This analysis investigates a particular dimension of assortative mating: We ask whether women's wages have become more important over time as a determinant of their position in the marriage market. In testing this hypothesis, we offer several important extensions on previous research. First, we use longitudinal data and take an individual-level approach to the analysis, which has several notable advantages over most previous studies. For example, our analysis is less affected by attrition through divorce than are studies examining the characteristics of married couples in cross-sectional samples. We measure wives' wages rather than their earnings or occupational status to reflect earnings potential because the latter measures are expected to be more heavily influenced by postmarriage variation in women's labor supply. …

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