How Economics Explains The Rising Support for Gay Marriage

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How Economics Explains The Rising Support for Gay Marriage

President Obama’s personal evolution toward accepting same-sex marriage has certainly made plenty of headlines.  But perhaps the bigger—and untold story—is the evolution of marriage itself, and how the generational shift in how we experience marriage underpins rising toward support for same-sex marriage.  At least that’s the idea that Betsey Stevenson and I explore in our latest column:

For our grandparents’ generation, marriage was about separate roles, separate spheres and specialization. Gary Becker, an economist at the University of Chicago, won the Nobel Prize partly for describing the family as an economic institution — a bit like a small firm that employs people with different skills to produce both income and a well-run household.

In Becker’s view, the joining of husband and wife yields a more productive firm, because it allows one spouse to specialize in earning income from working in the market, while the other specializes in the domestic sphere. The division of labor allows for greater productivity, just as it does in the workplace. The different skills required for these separate roles provide an economic rationale for the advice your grandmother may have offered, that “opposites attract.”

It’s that generation who prized traditional separate-spheres marriages who find the idea of same-sex marriage to be foreign.  And this type of marriage was not a particularly appealing institution for same-sex couples, whose relationships typically eschew this traditional division of labor. 

But heterosexual couples in more recent generations are also less likely to aspire to separate-sphere marriages. Economists describe a “second Industrial Revolution” in which washing machines, dishwashers and microwave ovens have reduced the value to the family “firm” of employing a domestic specialist. Cheap clothes can be imported from China, rather than sewn at home. Healthy meals can be purchased from the freezer at Trader Joe’s.

What’s more, legal and social changes have broken down many of the barriers keeping women out of the labor market. Explicit discrimination has declined. Women have gained more control over their fertility.

All these developments have increased the opportunity cost of having a spouse stay home, because that spouse now has greater value in the marketplace. As a result, our grandparents’ marriages, in which husband and wife have separate roles and spheres, are no longer so popular. Two-earner couples have become the norm, and families spend less time on housework.

The point is, technological, economic,