SINGLE parents constitute a quarter to a fifth of all family types and this number has remained stable for a number of years. However, a focus on single parenthood obscures the bigger problem of family instability and it is this with which we should be concerned.
Family instability is drawn from the increasing numbers of couples who are cohabiting. We tend to think of children residing in a two-parent family as being in a stable situation. However, it is from these cohabiting couples that what has variously been termed ‘the family merry-go-round’, ‘musical partnerships’ or fragile families are born.
This is bad news, because as a result of the collapse in marriage the numbers of children living within cohabiting unions will inexorably rise. A number of factors contribute to this.
The ongoing and now complete legal erosion of the marriage contract is central. So is the decline of religious belief and tradition. But it is the way in which changes in employment are shaping the family which I would like to concentrate on here.
The first wave of serious marriage decline coincided with women entering the labour market in numbers. The assumption was that the new-found independence of women was enabling them to shake off the burden of ‘patriarchal’ relationships.
But no consistent relationship between female employment and rates of marriage emerged and some researchers realised they had been looking in the wrong place.
What was actually happening was that the increase in female employment coincided with a decline in male employment. This was a period which saw severe declines in manufacturing, increases in the female-dominated service sector, and a decline in levels of education, particularly technical education.
In what I call the Jane Austen Effect, it was the hit to male employment rather than the increase in female employment which caused, and is causing, the decline in marriage. And there is plenty of evidence to back this up.
Sociologist Valerie Kincade Oppenheimer conducted longitudinal research, where she looked at a range of factors affecting marriage rates and found that while levels of earnings were important, the effect of the man’s career stability was even stronger.
Qualitative research showed how men with weaker employment prospects doubted their competence as providers and their attractiveness as potential partners and therefore expressed a fear of enduring commitment. Women also had anxieties about what they saw as commitment to unreliable men
(Corse, S.M. and Silva, J.M., 2016. w Intimate Inequalities. Beyond the Cubicle: Job Insecurity, Intimacy, and the Flexible Self, p.283).
Other research showed that it was men’s and not women’s earning potential which clearly accelerated the marriage progress. Earnings had no impact on likelihood of cohabitation, only on marriage. (Oppenheimer, V.K., 2000. The continuing importance of men’s economic position in marriage formation. The ties that bind: Perspectives on marriage and cohabitation, pp.283-301).
Pamela Smock and Wendy Manning explored how a cohabiting couple’s relative economic contribution affected the couple’s transition to marriage. Their findings were very strong. The higher the man’s annual earnings, the greater the likelihood of marrying rather than continuing to cohabit.
Having a college degree increases the odds of marrying by 150 per cent. Full-time male employment significantly reduced the odds of separation. The odds of marriage or separation could be predicted from men’s economic characteristics alone.
Kristen Harknett and Arielle Kuperberg show how labour market conditions explain the positive relationship between educational attainment and marriage. If less-educated men had equally good labour market conditions, the difference in marriage rates between the educated and less-educated would reduce.
Another striking finding is that it is not just the male wage which is important, but the relationship between the husband’s and the wife’s income. Research found that women would actively reduce their labour market participation rather than earn more than their husband, suggesting they believed that earning more would threaten their relationship in some way.
And evidence suggested it did. Among couples where the wife earned more than the husband, they were more likely to report being less happy in their relationship and experienced higher levels of strife and a greater likelihood of divorce.
Research from Denmark showed that at the point at which a wife’s wages exceed the husband’s, he was more likely to suffer from erectile dysfunction.
All this has clear implications for the UK, where over the past 20 years we have seen a serious worsening of men’s economic position.
The Institute of Fiscal Studies research shows how there has been extremely poor growth in male earnings over an extended period. For the past 20 years the growth in the earnings of working fathers has been 0.3 per cent a year, while mother’s earnings have grown at two per cent a year.
The Resolution Foundation found that between 1997 and 2016, the share of male employees earning at or around the typical male weekly wage fell by approximately 15 per cent. The share of men earning only a third of the median increased by 70 per cent.
This decline in male employment has obvious policy implications. If improvements in male employment can strengthen marriage and the family, this has the potential to save the Treasury money. Family breakdown has been estimated to cost the Treasury £51billion. This could provide savings through which investments in male employment and education can be offset.
Improvements in male employment should be directed at increasing employment opportunities of the less well-off. The alleged gender wage gap is less a feature of those in more poorly-paid employment.
As a result, less-privileged women have different concerns from their more privileged sisters. They would love to spend more time with their children and less time in their more arduous work. They would love to see the fathers of their children, or their brothers or their sons, in employment.
This would strengthen their families, lead to increased rates of marriage and reduce social inequality in society as a whole.
Belinda, a Patron of the Scottish Family Party, spoke on single parenthood at the recent Scottish Family Party Annual Conference. The above is a synopsis of her talk. If you would like to listen to the complete talk, you can find it here.