In her June 17 post for the New York Times Economix blog, the eminent economist, Nancy Folbre, marshaled a wide range of evidence suggesting that declining marriage rates reflect women’s – rather than men’s – waning desire to marry. This “declining demand for husbands,” she argues, reflects the increasing costs and decreasing benefits that marriage offers contemporary women. Now that women are able to support themselves via paid work, the classic terms of the marital bargain have been undone. Indeed, over 40 percent of households with children are now headed by a breadwinner mom (including the 25 percent who are single mothers), and this figure does not include the growing number of single, childless women who support themselves (click here for report).

This massive shift in the economic structure of families makes it clear that women, and especially younger women, can no longer expect that marriage will provide a husband to support them. It does not necessarily follow, however, that women do not wish to marry. After all, women and men alike also look to marriage to provide an array of highly valued intangibles, including love, intimacy, and emotional support, that are not supposed – at least in theory – to be tied to the size of husband’s paycheck. Why wouldn’t women still want these benefits and continue to seek them in marriage?
Folbre notes that most analysts point to the “stickiness” of gender norms to explain women’s resistance. These norms continue to operate on a number of levels and help explain why employed women still perform a disproportionate share of childcare and housework, why couples may feel ambivalent when he earns less, and why husbands continue to wield more power than their wives. But, as Folbre also notes, these norms may not be quite as sticky as they appear. The size of the gender gap in childcare and housework has declined appreciably over the last several decades as fathers have increased their parenting involvement and mothers have lowered the amount of time they spend in housework. Reports that couples are less satisfied when the wife earns more are based on data that is several decades old. Indeed, large cultural shifts can be found in recent surveys that show substantial growth in social support for employed mothers, involved fathers, and nontraditional couples of various stripes. The rise of same-sex relationships has also helped undermine rigid beliefs about the role of gender in marriage, since same-sex couples cannot rely on gender to assign breadwinning and caretaking responsibilities.

Though the changing economy and the general stickiness of gender categories are both part of the story, neither is sufficient to fully explain women’s resistance to marriage. We also need to focus on what women – and men – are seeking in its place. As Folbre notes, my research on the first generation to grow up during this period of rapid gender change found that women and men alike value “gender flexibility.” Most want to create an enduring bond with an intimate partner, but they would prefer to jettison rigid notions of gender difference in favor of a more equal, flexible approach to sharing caretaking and breadwinning (click here for research). The aspirations of these “children of the gender revolution” are not stuck in the past. Instead, most have concluded that more inclusive, egalitarian, and flexible gender arrangements offer a better way to navigate today’s uncertain waters in both the economy and marriage.

Yet ideals and aspirations are never enough to bring about social change, and these young people are keenly aware that huge obstacles block their path. Our institutions, even more than our cultural beliefs, are sticky. These include a workplace that still defines the ideal worker as someone who always puts the job first and a privatized system of caretaking that still relies on individual families – mostly mothers – to provide care on their own. Amid these strictures, young women and men believe their increasingly egalitarian aspirations may be out of reach, and they are falling back on second-best options that appear to offer a more realistic path forward.

If women and men agree that equality is an illusive goal, they disagree about how to respond to this constraint. For women, self-reliance — which includes combining strong workplace ties with a social network of supportive friends and kin — appears to provide a way forward that does not leave them dependent on a husband’s earnings and offers a better chance to achieve financial and personal autonomy than does traditional marriage. Yet men do not perceive a parallel option to pull back from work to be a more egalitarian partner. The norms and institutions surrounding men and masculinity are especially sticky, and the pressure to earn a living in an increasingly insecure job market only intensifies men’s sense of needing to work more and let someone else pick up the slack at home. This clash between women’s growing desire for equality and autonomy and men’s persisting need to be a successful breadwinner fuels the declining demand for husbands.

What are implications for future of marriage? The decline in marriage rates is both practically and symbolically important, but it does not signal a wholesale rejection of marriage. We need look no further than the fight for same-sex marriage to find evidence of its enduring importance. There may be a declining demand for husbands — at least the traditional kind — but there is a rising demand for a life partner to share the joys and woes of earning a living and caring for others in an intimate setting.

Yet having the option to marry is not the same as actually getting and staying married. New generations of women are more likely to exercise that choice if and when they are able create and sustain relationships that are more equal and flexible than the gender-divided structure of traditional marriage. In this sense, young women are not simply lowering the demand for husbands; they are also raising the demand for work-family policies that would make it possible for men as well as women to integrate committed work with caretaking. If we do not rearrange our work and parenting institutions to help support these aspirations, then more women will resist traditional marriage and more men won’t be able to support it.

By Kathleen Gerson, Collegiate Professor of Sociology, New York University

Author, The Unfinished Revolution: Coming of Age in a New Era of Gender, Work, and Family