Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Postponement or Abandonment of Marriage? Evidence from Hong Kong*

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Postponement or Abandonment of Marriage? Evidence from Hong Kong*

Article excerpt


It is commonly known that the age at first marriage for women has been on the rise in the post-WWII era in industrial and industrializing countries. In the United States, the median age at first marriage among women increased from 20.8 years in 1970 to 25.1 years in 2000an impressive increase of 4.3 years over a 30 year period. Over the same period, the proportion of women 20 to 24 years old who had never married doubled, from 35.8 percent to 72.8 percent. The increase was even greater in relative terms for women 30 to 34 years old, having more than tripled from 6.2 percent in 1970 to 21.9 percent in 2000 (U.S. Census Bureau 2001).

But while the trend of a rising age at first marriage is well-recognized, it is less clear what its underlying determinants are. Also, it is far from clear whether this phenomenon reflects primarily marriage postponement or marriage abandonment (whether intended or by default). For despite a rising median age at first marriage and rising proportions of younger women who remain unmarried, it is far from obvious that significantly more women are foregoing marriage for life. After all, among women who had reached age 55 in 2000, over 95 percent of them had been married-and interestingly this represents a higher proportion compared to 1970 (U.S. Census Bureau 2001). The figure for 2000 is also broadly consistent with long-term historical records which show that more than 90 percent of every female birth cohort on record since the mid-180Os has eventually married (Cherlin 1992; Goldstein and Kenney 2001). Clearly, then, rising nonmarriage remains far from an established fact. Still, due to the relatively recent nature of the rise in the age at first marriage, the real question of interest remains as to whether the cohorts that will be reaching 55 in the coming 10,20 or 30 years will eventually marry.

The postwar increase in the age at first marriage has taken place during a period of rising education and employment among women, which presumably has enhanced women's economic status and financial independence. For this reason, much of the debate over what lies behind the phenomenon of a rising age at first marriage has centered on the economic independence (EI) hypothesis, which was pioneered by Becker (1973,1974,1981), although various extensions and reinterpretations of Decker's seminal contribution have since appeared in the literature (Preston and Richards 1975; Fuchs 1983; Espenshade 1985; Goldscheider andWaite 1986; Bloom and Bennett 1990;BlossfeldandHuinink 1991;Cherlin 1992;Raymo 1998). The EI hypothesis in its most widely interpreted form states that rising economic attainment among women will weaken the rationale for the traditional division of labor in the household, and reduce the gains from marriage, and therefore its incidence. It should be emphasized that the EI hypothesis points squarely to rising nonmarriage rather than marriage postponement as resulting from women's increased economic attainment.

The EI hypothesis has stimulated vigorous debate, as we will document below. Still, despite the voluminous literature, some key theoretical issues remain unresolved. Also, various statistical studies have called into doubt the key empirical predictions of the EI hypothesis. As to the question of whether the rising age at first marriage in recent decades reflects primarily marriage postponement or abandonment, the evidence remains inconclusive.

In this paper we hope to contribute to the literature on both theoretical and empirical grounds. A key research question is whether rising educational and employment opportunity for women will result primarily in marriage postponement, or marriage abandonment. On the theoretical side, we argue that the EI hypothesis is fundamentally flawed because it is rooted in the untenable assumption that the household division of labor is static and unresponsive to changes in women's education and earnings. However, the failure of the EI hypothesis does not negate the general validity of the economic approach in analyzing the age at first marriage. …

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