Women's progress boosts men who 'marry up,' study says

Story highlights

  • More US men are "marrying up" than women, according to a new study
  • It's partly because there are more highly educated women now than a few decades ago

Shifting views on marriage, paired with increased access to education and employment for many women, has helped society shake loose from some antiquated ideas on how "traditional" families should be structured. (Hot tip: there's no "right" way to be a family.)

But rather than men staying put while women rise, they might be gaining even more ground thanks to a seesaw-like effect: a new study published in the journal Demography found that more men are "marrying up" than women, which could mean "men are getting the benefit from women's progress," according to one of the lead researchers.
    "Marrying-up" usually refers to marrying above your economic class, often improving one's social mobility in the process. And while of course men have also married up, it's been historically more common for women to do so. (If the idea of women being historically more likely to marry up gives you personal or political pause, remember that until fairly recently, many women didn't have access to the sort of opportunities, like employment and education, that would situate them on the "up" end of the marry up spectrum.)
    More men are marrying up today in part because there are more highly educated women now than there were a few decades ago, according to the study findings. As a result, "women are more likely to get married to a less-educated man," ChangHwan Kim, PhD, the study's lead author and an associate professor of sociology at the University of Kansas, said in the press release.
    To come to this conclusion, Kim and his study co-author Arthur Sakamoto, PhD, a professor of sociology at Texas A&M University, looked at gender-specific changes in income and marriage from hundreds of thousands of 35 to 44-year-olds using data from the U.S. Census from 1990 to 2000 and the American Community Survey from 2009 to 2011.
    To measure "gender-specific changes," the researchers looked at how much return people got on their education in terms of their family's income. Kim told me via email that this is a "popular measure to assess standard-of-living that factors in family income and family size."
    "Previously, women received more total financial return to education than men, because their return in the marriage market was high," Kim said in the press release. But because of gains in education and employment opportunities, that advantage has "deteriorated over time," he added.
    During the time period the researchers studied, they found that while women saw greater growth in their personal earnings compared to men, their "net advantage of being female in terms of family-standard-of-living decreased approximately 13 percent."
    I asked Kim what a "net advantage of being female" meant over email and he clarified that "if a high-school educated woman marries a man with a BA degree, her equalized income (which gages the standard-of-living) can be higher than a high-school educated man who marries a woman with less than high school education."
    Until the 1990s, "women's standard-of-living after controlling for education was higher than men's," he told me via email, "but that is no longer the case in 2009-2011."
    If you're not sure how to interpret the findings, you're not alone -- they're complicated. On the one hand, they paint a picture of an increasingly equitable education and employment landscape. Women bringing more to the family table, economically speaking, helps to shatter old school ideas about the "man of the house" being the "breadwinner" or "pants-wearer" of the family.
    But "in essence," as Kim told me via email, mens' "standard-of-living has improved substantially more than equally less-educated women thanks to their wives' higher salary than before."
    To further complicate things, women vying for a suitable male partner are doing so at a time when American men are already becoming less marriageable, as my colleague Drake Baer wrote about recently, in part because a wide-swath of male-dominated jobs like manufacturing are being automated.
    Taken together, these changes have led to "a faster improvement of the family standard of living for men than for equally educated women themselves," according to the study's press release.
    That improvement "could explain why it seems men don't complain a lot about this," Kim said in the press release. (I asked him what meant by "this" via email and he wrote that, basically, of course men aren't complaining: depending on your perspective, they're getting the better end of the deal.)
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    "The main driver of this phenomenon is ironically 'the rise of women," Kim wrote, adding that "women are now more educated than men" and that "unless we abandon marriage as a social institution completely, it is inevitable for many women to marry down."
    Kim added that "the marriage market is becoming increasingly important for men's economic well being." The upside is that can use this data to better understand how trends like "marrying up" will affect our culture.
    And in the meantime, we can remind those men who are reluctant to marry a woman who makes more than them that, as Kim told me, "it is economically good for men to be a feminist."