‘Marrying Up' Has Never Been Easier for American Men

Thanks to an increase in education, women today are more likely to marry men who are less educated and earn less money than they do.

The idea of “marrying up,” in which someone elevates their social status by getting hitched to someone of a higher class or tax bracket, has pervaded human culture for centuries. The cliché has often been applied to women (see Jane Austen), but new research shows that men in the US now have a greater chance of social climbing through marriage than ever before.

On the flipside, this means bad news for women hoping that their husband will be the main breadwinner.

Thanks to an increase in education, women today are more likely to marry men who are less educated and earn less money than they do, a study published in the journal Demography found.

“When women become the main breadwinner for their household, their economic well-being will be lowered because the contribution from their husbands is significantly reduced than before,” ChangHwan Kim, lead study author and associate professor of sociology at the University of Kansas, told Seeker.

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Kim and his co-author Arthur Sakamoto of Texas A&M University, examined US census data from 1990 and 2000 and the 2009-2011 American Community Survey, specifically looking at the total financial return to education within the marriage market as it relates to gender.

In terms of the standard of living for families, the net advantage of being female decreased 13 percent between 1990 and the 2009-2011 survey. Because women have generally increased their education and now experience a greater return on that education, their earnings grew at a rate faster than men’s during this period.

“The main driver of this phenomenon is ironically ‘the rise of women,’” Kim said. “Women are now more educated than men. Unless we abandon marriage as a social institution completely, it is inevitable for many women to marry down.”

Thanks to a plateau on the return on earnings for men and an increase for women, the husband’s contribution to the family income has lessened while the wife’s contribution has increased. Yet because quality of life is more often determined by family income rather than personal earnings, Kim noted, you don’t hear many men complaining about their breadwinning wives.

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“The marriage market is becoming increasingly important for men’s economic well-being,” Kim commented. “It is economically good for men to be feminist.”

This trend also means that less-educated women are at a greater disadvantage than they were several decades ago, however. Even though their personal earnings have increased, their husband’s contribution to the family has decreased, lowering their overall standard of living.

Kim warns that this could spur an even greater wealth gap between less-educated families and those with higher levels of education.

It’s not all bad news for women though. According to Kim, marriage is still economically valuable for women. In fact, he sees the data as a sign that marriage is becoming more egalitarian.

“One positive side is that this means power balance within a household is equalizing,” he said. “The change in marriage from an institutional mandate to finding a lifetime partner may enhance this trend.”

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