We live in a world that is moving in the direction of gender equity. The United Nation’s Gender Inequality Index has declined in recent years at some point—usually continuously—in every country with available data besides Haiti. We see higher rates of educational attainment for women in poorly developed countries, post-industrial countries, and almost everywhere in between. Women’s labor force participation rates are also going up in a myriad of places. These changes are correlated with declines in child marriage and in female genital mutilation. Economic empowerment also increases women’s ability to leave abusive marriages, to delay marriage, and to forgo marriage. In other words, women’s choices have expanded at all levels of economic development. We might therefore expect that women have become far more satisfied with their lives, but whose life satisfaction has increased the most in recent decades? Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is unmarried men’s.
That finding from recent work by Małgorzata Mikucka published in the Journal of Marriage and Family runs counter to the notion that the benefits of marriage are being eroded by women’s progress, and also to the idea that women benefit, but men do not. In her analysis of countries comprising almost 90 percent of the world’s population and spanning nearly 30 years (1981-2009), life satisfaction did not change among married men and women. Married people remained more satisfied with their lives than unmarried people, but the size of their advantaged declined among men because unmarried men’s life satisfaction increased.
Women’s lives are changing throughout the world, but we know that change in recent decades comes from a different starting point in Northern Europe than it does in sub-Saharan Africa. Thus, it is remarkable that Mikucka found that life satisfaction among the married did not decline in either developing or developed countries. It even increased among women in developed countries.
She also explored whether marriage has lost some of its advantage because gender roles have become less specialized (a smaller proportion of wives are full-time homemakers). She gives two reasons why this would impact the life satisfaction of married people in particular: 1) couples lose the utility associated with specialization when they no longer specialize, and 2) it is easier to be dissatisfied with marriage when it is expected to meet complex emotional needs than when it was deemed successful if it met basic functional needs. But given that the satisfaction of married people did not decline, it is hardly surprising that the decline in specialization was unrelated to their satisfaction.
Nonetheless, this is a very important non-finding: The life satisfaction advantage of married people does not depend on specialization. Marriage confers benefits in other ways. As Mikucka herself put it: “My results support the claim that women's employment and egalitarian gender roles do not put at risk the well-being of marriages… The current study is the first to demonstrate this result from a broad comparative perspective.”
The same institution that in the past helped people survive still makes them more satisfied with their lives.
I find this quite consistent with the results from the 2015 World Family Map Project: We found that parents—both men and women—in countries throughout the world reported very similar levels of happiness whether they divided labor along traditional gender lines, were egalitarian, reversed traditional roles, or overburdened one of the partners. Single parents were less happy everywhere. The benefits of marriage do not depend on the division of labor.
Nonetheless, Mikucka found that in developed countries, unmarried people became more satisfied with their lives where gender specialization within marriage was declining. At first blush, this doesn’t make sense: How could unmarried people, who are neither housewives nor married to them, be affected by how married folks divide their labor? The answer to that question results from both market and state alternatives to traditional wifely care. Where more women work in the paid labor force, there are more market substitutes for homemaking services (think, laundry services, grocery delivery, etc.). Similarly, publicly provided preschool and/or elder care also makes private care less essential. It may be two-earner married couples that create enough demand to ensure that hot food bars in grocery stores are ubiquitous, but they certainly make dinner easier for single people too. Where there abundant alternatives to home production, unmarried people benefit disproportionately.
At the end of the day, the picture Mikucka paints is far from a zero-sum game. Overall, she shows that the life satisfaction advantage to being married declined only because the life satisfaction of unmarried men increased. In developing countries, the advantage to being married also declined without the married being less satisfied (specifically, an insignificant increase in satisfaction among the unmarried coupled with an insignificant decrease among the married added up to a significant decline in the advantage to being married). And in developed countries, life satisfaction has gone up for everyone besides married men (who have remained equally satisfied). When marriage transforms “from an arrangement that satisfies lower level practical needs to an institution that helps achieve personal accomplishment and self-fulfillment,” it actually confers a larger satisfaction premium.
This means that the same institution that in the past helped people survive still makes them more satisfied with their lives. None of the dramatic changes in women’s lives have changed this. Even the closing gap in satisfaction between married and unmarried men has nothing to do with anyone’s satisfaction being eroded. The breadwinner husband/homemaker wife institution has become a rarity in many parts of the world, but marriage itself has not become outdated as an important source of life satisfaction.