2.1. Marriage Formation and Economic Circumstances
Much of the research on the association between economic circumstances and demographic trends has focused on fertility behavior [8
].The economic foundation of marriage has been a key element of sociological research on marriage formation. Men’s economic potential has been seen as a prerequisite for marriage, and unemployment as a barrier to the transition to marriage [10
]. As a result, any trends undermining men’s economic stability may have a negative effect on marriage transitions.
Studies showed that male employment and favorable economic circumstances uniformly increased men’s likelihood of marriage [11
]. Social change in women’s economic circumstances, most prominently increased labor force participation and earnings capacity, has been linked to reduced marriage rates. There is some evidence that women’s increased economic resources allowed them access to alternative life course options, including the decision not to marry [12
]. Similarly, in examining both partners’ economic circumstances, only men’s economic circumstances seemed to affect a couple’s probability of transitioning into marriage, but women’s economic circumstances had no effect [14
]. There is contradictory evidence that found that the lack of economic resources for both men and women reduces entry into marriage [20
]. Others found rather similar associations between economic well-being and marriage entry for men and women [22
One possible reason for the inconsistent findings for the association between women’s economic activity and marriage at the individual level across different types of studies is that the financial autonomy that reduced women’s pressure to get married was offset by women’s increased financial resources, which make them more attractive partners for potential spouses [11
] theory of marriage timing provides a framework that argued against the idea that economic opportunities discouraged women from entering marriage. Instead, the theory suggested that modern labor markets, longer duration of education, and female labor force participation merely resulted in delayed marriage due to the increased difficulty of assortative mating and men’s eroding economic positions, addressing both the micro and macro levels. Since both men’s and women’s marriage-related attributes (e.g., family orientation, economic potential) remain unclear until later in adulthood [22
], finding a match is more difficult.
Economic up- and downturns at the societal level are associated with individuals’ marriage prospects [28
]; the economy does not only shape people’s present economic circumstances, it also affects their perspective on the future and their sense of economic insecurity, such as the fear of job loss or unemployment experiences. Another example to underline the link between macro-level economic circumstances and marriage transitions is the case of political change in Germany in the 1990s. Around the time of German unification, a time of sweeping societal change, East German marriage and fertility rates went down, but both remained stable in West Germany. East Germany experienced dramatic changes in the economic context, especially the rapid rise in economic uncertainty that went beyond individuals’ economic positions, which in turned seemed to (temporarily) reduce East Germans’ willingness to engage in the long-term commitment associated with marriage and parenthood [30
There is little in Oppenheimer’s approach to suggest that the effects of the economic context will change over time. However, the social pressure of entering marriage is decreasing cross-nationally, in part because of the growing acceptance and prevalence of non-marital cohabitation [31
]. As a result, decreasing rates of marriage and later marriage entry can become self-reinforcing, which some scholars have dubbed as a retreat from marriage. This implies that the economic context, such as unemployment rates or gross domestic product (GDP), is less and less predictive of a country’s marriage patterns over time.
2.2. Marriage Formation and Socio-Cultural and Policy Context
Numerous studies found evidence for a subjective financial threshold to marriage. Financial and residential independence were perceived as a prerequisite for marriage, which was associated with a specific lifestyle [21
], and poor men and women were found to be half as likely to be married as those with incomes three times the poverty level [33
]. Cohabitation may be an alternative or a bridge to marriage for those who believe that they cannot “afford” marriage [21
]. Unfortunately, lack of sufficient data on cohabitation in most countries currently precludes comprehensive comparative analysis of the formation of cohabitation.
The relationship between economic circumstances and marriage formation has been widely investigated at the individual level, but it is also important to look at the aggregate level. Societal standards about financial thresholds for marriage entry imply that even if a couple did not subscribe to the ideas of economic “standards” associated with marriage, they likely faced these expectations from others in their social networks [35
] and they might have “behaved” according to societal standards. The impact of economic uncertainty and economic opportunities on marriage decisions and timing transcends the individual level. Unemployment does not only affect the behavior of those who have experienced it. High unemployment rates, especially for men, may deter even those who are currently in stable employment from marrying. Similarly, women’s economic independence and high levels of labor force participation may shape women’s outlook on their career potential and human capital investments beyond their individual circumstances.
Of course, economic circumstances are not the only factor shaping marriage timing and marriage rates. Values and attitudes towards family and gender issues have been used as explanatory factors in the analysis of marriage transitions, mostly at the individual level. The observed increase in the proportion of women who work outside the home, for example, has been portrayed not only as a reflection of the improved opportunities for women in the workplace but also as evidence of a shift in attitudes with marriage and family taking a less central position [36
]. Those with favorable attitudes towards marriage were found to be more likely to marry [37
], and a shift in these attitudes may delay marriage and reduce marriage rates. Moreover, there is some evidence that the decrease in marriage entry may not be caused by increased societal barriers but by reduced preference for marriage [15
]. However, some argue that marriage delays may be mainly due to more time spent in education [38
Axinn and Yabiku [39
] found that the role of societal (or even neighborhood) norms regarding marriage matter beyond individual-level factors [40
]. Institutional features and relative importance of marriage in society, for example, may play an important role in shaping marriage formation behavior. If marriage is easily reversible, i.e., divorce is easy to achieve, then the entry barrier may not be very high, which should result in higher marriage rates and younger age at marriage. Preston and Richards [41
] found that in more Catholic areas, marriage rates are lower because the high stakes associated with Catholic marriage encourage a delay in marriage.
Marriage is a gendered institution and has often been linked to more traditional patterns of behavior compared to non-marital relationships [42
]. Ono [45
] showed that gender differentiation at a societal level changed the mechanisms of marriage formation at the individual level, implying that, in the absence of gender equality, women may avoid marriage if they have the means to do so. Greater gender equality, especially concerning political power, also has the potential to increase women’s independence further and result in a lower propensity for women to enter marriage or in the delay of marriage until later adulthood. This relationship needs to be examined at the macro level, and testing for possible changes over time in this relationship can be indicative of the evolution of marriage towards becoming a more egalitarian institution.
The policy context can be seen as a special case of the socio-cultural context. Some aspects of women’s position in society, i.e., gender equality or the level of labor force participation, can be seen as realized policy goals [46
]. In addition to the societal features discussed above, countries can be grouped into policy clusters that share similar characteristics, focusing on entire policy packages [47
]. National policy context is more than the sum of economic circumstances and individual values, and shapes the relationship between states, markets, families, and individuals [47
]. There are many possibilities to both measure and categorize policy contexts. For this study, I rely on the comparative welfare state approach [47
], which distinguishes between Social Democratic, Liberal, and Conservative regimes.
The Conservative policy framework seeks to maintain existing structures by supporting a gendered division of labor with an expansive set of social and economic policies, particularly seeking to strengthen the “traditional” family. The Liberal regime has been characterized as taking a “laissez-faire” approach with only limited state interventions in both the economic and private spheres. This is not to imply that socially liberal positions are endorsed, but rather that the importance of market relations and individualistic decision making is emphasized. There have been numerous efforts in the United States to strengthen marriage. But, marriage promotion is focused primarily on the poor population and has the goal of poverty prevention [50
]. The Social Democratic welfare state is dedicated to equality, through the redistribution of wealth in the population but also through active efforts to reduce gender inequality and to support families through state-supported childcare. Countries are categorized based on relative consensus in the field. The Netherlands has often been considered an example of a hybrid case and has been categorized inconsistently [52
]. Although some suggest the categorization as Social Democratic welfare state [53
], I follow others who have treated this country as part of the Conservative cluster due to its fit with the continental European cluster [54
More recently, scholars have suggested that these three policy types may not be enough to capture the policy circumstances in Europe. Rather than classifying the countries of Southern Europe as “weak” cases of the Conservative regime, Ferrera [55
] suggests that this group of countries be treated as a cluster by itself. Whereas traditional family values are at least as central in countries like Spain, Greece, and Italy as they are in their northern counterpart countries of Esping-Andersen’s Conservative policy group, the state support is a lot weaker and less generous. One of the reasons for this may be the ongoing reliance on strong family ties, which are considered as central and not in need of state support.
The transitional economies of Eastern Europe warrant separate consideration. During the time of state socialism, the state was regulating all aspects of life in these countries. After the revolutions of 1989, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the introduction of a largely capitalist market economy, state provision declined drastically. Although the extent of the transition to market capitalism varies in these countries, all of them share the legacy in which women used to be fully incorporated into the economy which undermines, at least ideologically, the idea of a primary male breadwinner. This legacy may also imply that men’s economic circumstances are less central to marriage formation trends in these countries.
As the five policy clusters differ in the level of emphasis on traditional family arrangements and gender equality, they also differ in the level of women’s labor force participation. In Conservative and Southern policy regimes, traditional employment structures are (at least indirectly) encouraged, and women’s low labor force participation levels match those policies. At the other end of the spectrum, Social Democratic welfare states encourage women’s equality in society and women are participating in the labor force at high levels. Liberal and Eastern regimes fall somewhere in the middle, as there are few explicit family policies, and work-family issues are left largely to market forces. Women participate in the labor force at high levels, be it out of tradition (in the Eastern policy regime), or economic necessity.
Similar to the expectation of the decreasing role of economic context outlined above, it can be expected that global trends towards gender equality and cultural change [56
] will, in the long term, reduce cross-national differences, and result in a decreasing effect on the predictability of marriage entry and marriage age, particularly in the policy context. Recent trends towards fewer children and aging populations [57
] also imply a pattern of partial convergence but not a lack of cross-cultural differences.