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Speaking of the Economy
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Speaking of the Economy
Aug. 16, 2023

The Impact of Marriage on How Much Men Work

Audiences: General Public, Economists

John Bailey Jones discusses his recent research on the relationship between marital status and the labor force participation of men. Jones is vice president of microeconomic analysis at the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond.


Tim Sablik: Hello, I'm Tim Sablik, a senior economics writer at the Richmond Fed. My guest today is John Bailey Jones, vice president of microeconomic analysis at the Richmond Fed's Research department. John, thanks for joining me.

John Bailey Jones: Thanks for having me here.

Sablik: Our topic for discussion today is the interaction between marriage and work. There's been a number of studies documenting that, for example, married women — and in particular married women with children — tend to work less than unmarried women. There's also been studies showing that married men earn more on average than unmarried men. But in a recent working paper, you and your co-authors, Adam Blandin of Vanderbilt University and Fang Yang of the Dallas Fed, explore a related question that hasn't received quite as much attention: how does marriage affect how much men work?

What drew you to this topic?

Jones: First of all, I was just struck by the size of the effect. If you look at the raw data, married men tend to work 20 to 30 percent more hours than single men. That's really big. If you think the average guy works 2,000 hours a year, that's an extra 400 to 600 hours a year. As of right now, that's actually a bigger gap in absolute terms than the gap you see between married and single women. That gap has been closing over time. But the gap for married men has actually stayed pretty stable. If anything, it might have gotten just a tiny bit bigger.

The second point is there's a longstanding cultural narrative that getting married and having a family causes young men to abandon their restless ways [and] to settle down and work harder. Given that the raw data suggested that there might be some truth to this narrative, I was really curious to dig deeper and see if it really held up under examination.

Sablik: You mentioned the data and that headline 20 to 30 percent number. What data exactly did you and your co-authors examine? What did you find about marriage and male labor supply?

Jones: We've looked at a couple of different data sources. The first source is the annual supplement to the Current Population Survey, which has taken snapshots of the U.S. population for decades. That's where the 20 to 30 percent number I just gave you came from. The drawback to the Current Population Survey is it doesn't track the same people over time. You can't see people as they go through their lives.

To get that feature in the data, we went to the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. This is a panel dataset of people who were born between 1957 and 1964. We see them first in 1979 and then we track them over time. What this survey shows is that men increase their hours of work by 10 to 15 percent in the run-up to marriage. When we look at the date when the man's first child arrives, you see something very similar. One thing that's interesting is if you look at men whose first child is born before they get married, you see an even bigger effect.

Sablik: It seems like there's definitely this interesting correlation between [men's] work and their family lives. It could be that men who work more are more likely to get married. Or it could be that getting married or anticipating marriage drives men to work more. How did you go about testing those different hypotheses?

Jones: Right, so that's the fundamental issue.

The first thing we did was what I've just described, which is to look at a dataset that allows us to track the same people over time. If the dynamic were simply that hard working guys are more likely to get married, we really wouldn't expect their behavior to change a lot around the time that they get married. But that's not what we see. That's very suggestive.

Sablik: Um hmm.

Jones: However, it's not definitive. You can imagine a scenario where men who get unexpected wage increases — maybe suddenly get a job that puts you on the executive track — both work more because they're getting paid more per hour and they become more likely to marry because they're now more desirable.

To address that problem, our second approach is to write down a model of male labor supply where higher wages increase the probability of marriage, and men get enjoyment from sharing their income with their wives and children. We fit this model to the data. We simulate the model and try to see which of the two mechanisms is more important — are hours rising around the time of marriage because wage increases are increasing the odds of marriage, or are hours rising around the time of marriage because marriage makes labor earnings more valuable because you get enjoyment out of sharing it with people in your family?

Sablik: So what did you find?

Jones: When it comes to the run-up in hours around the time of marriage, the main cause appears to be what we call the "mouths to feed" effect. That is the second effect that I just mentioned — marriage is increasing the value of earnings.

Now, without getting too deep into the weeds of why we reach that conclusion of the model, one reason that we do is that even though wages increase around the time of marriage, they tend to increase after hours increase. If we thought that the story was that you get a raise, you start working more and you become a more attractive spouse, you would think the wage increase would be coming first. But in fact, you see the wage increase happen after the hours increase. The second feature is that while wages go up, they don't increase enough to justify the additional hours that we do observe.

Sablik: Gotcha. There's also been some recent research into the potential causes of declining male labor force participation in recent decades. Does your study offer any answers or hints about that question?

Jones: Certainly. The data show that the decline in male labor force participation has coincided with a decline in marriage rates. That's an intriguing correlation if there ever was one.

There's evidence from people like David Autor that the loss of good-paying jobs — say, they are outsourced; that was his particular application — has led to fewer marriages. So, for a particular group of people, if the best employer leaves town then they're just less likely to get married.

But, and this is what our research suggests, some of the causality may be working in another direction. It may be that a decline in marriage, whatever is causing it, is leading to lower labor force participation. With our model, we show that if the observed decline in marriage came first, it could account for one quarter of the observed decline in participation. That's a non-trivial fraction. Obviously, it's not the whole story, but it does suggest that the changes in marital patterns may be playing a non-trivial role.

Sablik: Are there any other research questions around this topic that you'd like to explore in the future?

Jones: Too many to list. This fact about male hours of work is, I don't think, very well known. And I don't think the topic has been studied that much.

There is an old literature from about 40 years ago, dating back to some of the work by the great Gary Becker, about what's called the male wage premium. Married guys tend to earn more and there was a theory about that involving specialization. You have a couple — one couple focuses on taking care of the home and the other person in a couple focuses on developing a career. That leads to higher earnings. That's obviously related to what we're doing, but it's a different story.

So, back to our project. One thing we want to better understand is what drives marriage. In our current model, marriage is treated as a random process outside the man's control. That's obviously a simplification. The real world is obviously more complicated. So, that's something we would like to explore more.

A second question is something I've already mentioned, which is the fact that married men not only tend to work more hours, but they have higher wages. There's a huge body of work in economics about what is called human capital accumulation. Basically, what are the determinants of wages? What determines skills? What determines how those skills have been converted into wages? So, one of the things we wonder is do men who are married work more hours or take other steps to increase their future wages?

One of the conclusions we are reaching is that married men seem to work more, in part, because they enjoy providing for their family. It would also make sense that men would also be trying to invest more in their careers and advance their careers so they could be better providers for their families.

It's a fascinating topic. One of the things that makes it really interesting is it's evolving over time. Our data was for people who were born around 1960, and that's important so that we can track them over long periods of time and see how they're evolving. We've looked a little bit at the NLSY [National Longitudinal Survey of Youth] '97, which is people born about 20 years later. And, of course, it will be also interesting to see how what people who are going to the 20s and 30s today are doing.

Sablik: Exactly.

John, thanks so much for coming on today to talk about this research.

Jones: My pleasure.

Sablik: Listeners can find a link to the paper we discussed today on the show page. If you enjoyed this episode, please consider leaving us a rating and review on your favorite podcast app.

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