Has the 21st-Century Economy Produced a Change in Marriage Patterns in the United States?

A new study led by Christine Schwartz, a professor and chair of the department of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, finds that the tendency of people to marry those with similar jobs has not changed much over the past half century. But the changing availability of spouses with particular jobs — especially a large increase in professional women — has dramatically changed common household couplings.

The research team analyzed the trends over the last half century in occupational assortative mating, or the tendency of people to marry those with similar jobs. Using census data, Schwartz and her colleagues studied more than four million married opposite-sex couples and their jobs from 1970 to 2017.

Seismic shifts in the economy have led to large differences in the jobs men and women hold over the last half century. In particular, the share of professional women almost tripled to roughly 35 percent, and more women entered the labor force. Over the same period, men became less likely to work in blue-collar jobs, and somewhat fewer men worked. These trends have affected marriage patterns and led to a pronounced increase in the number of dual-professional households.

Due especially to the increased representation of women in professional jobs, dual-professional marriages became by far the most common coupling among 25 possible pairings of job categories. At the same time, once-common pairings have become rarer. Fifty years ago, about 10 percent of all marriages were between two blue-collar workers. Today, it’s just 3.5 percent. Fifteen percent of marriages were between blue-collar husbands and wives who didn’t work in 1970, and that has now shrunk to 6.5 percent of marriages.

When Professor Schwartz’s team controlled for the availability of spouses in different professions, they discovered that nearly all of the changes in household couplings are due to the differences in jobs individuals have, rather than new patterns in marriages.

For instance, male doctors 50 years ago had a similar tendency to marry female doctors as they do now. There are just many more female doctors today, which allows more two-doctor households to exist.

The researchers also found that married men, but not married women, have seen a decline in income due to a combination of stagnant wages, a modest decrease in the percentage of men working, and a drop in relatively well-paying blue-collar jobs. In many sectors, wives have offset flat wages among husbands and low wage growth within occupations by increasing their share in the labor force and by occupying better-paying professional jobs at greater rates.

Professor Schwartz joined the faculty at the University of Wisconsin in 2006 and was promoted to full professor in 2015. She is a graduate of Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where she majored in sociology. Dr. Schwartz holds a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California, Los Angeles.

The full study, “Opportunity and Change in Occupational Assortative Mating,” was published in the journal Social Science Research. It may be accessed here.

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