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, social and legal change have undermined the benefits of the traditional marriages of the 1950s.  When the benefits of marriage decline, you might expect marriage itself to disappear.  Instead, it has evolved to offer different benefits:

Today, we search for a soul mate rather than a good homemaker or provider. We are more likely to regard marriage as a forum for shared experiences and passions.  Viewed through an economic frame, modern partnerships are based upon “consumption complementarities” — the joy of sharing things and experiences — rather than the production-based gains that motivated traditional marriage. Consistent with this, co- parenting has replaced the separate roles of nurturer and disciplinarian.

We have called this new model of sharing lives “hedonic marriage.” These are marriages of equality in which the rule “opposites attract” no longer applies in the same way, because couples with more similar interests and values can derive greater benefits. So likes are now more likely to marry each other.

All of this means that changes in heterosexual marriage have yielded an institution that is now more attractive to same-sex couples.  In turn, we believe that this explains why the gay and lesbian community have become so active in advocating for access to marriage.

Moreover, these same economic forces may also explain why it is that younger generations are so much more likely to support same-sex marriage:

For heterosexuals who have embraced the modern notion of marriage, the idea of same-sex marriage seems natural. These couples aren’t any different from them. They love and support each other, raise kids together and are committed to each other. They share values, desires and interests. Not allowing them to marry is as arbitrary as not allowing couples of different races, ethnicities or religions to marry.

Looking ahead, we think these same factors will continue to re-shape marriage:

It is no coincidence that many of the opponents of same-sex marriage are also opponents of the ongoing shift to marriages of equality. Theirs is a futile battle. The reach of markets will keep expanding, allowing individuals and families to reap greater returns by selling their specialized skills and services outside the home. Technological change will further undermine the benefits of specialization within the family. Improvements in women’s education will continue to raise the opportunity cost of staying at home.

My prediction: The reach of same-sex marriage will continue to grow, and in a decade or so, will be largely uncontroversial.

You can read our full column hereEzra Klein has some useful commentary here; Marina Adshade adds her thoughts here, and the wonderful Stephanie Coontz has a related column—with more of an historian’s take—here.

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  1. Dave says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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    • Robert Carson says:

      You’re taking something from the FRC as even vaguely legitimate? Look at how they’re using those stats! Yuck!!

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      • Dave says:

        Care to critique the studies they reference or their usage of the stats rather than the ad hominem attack on the messenger?

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      • Zakafury says:


        The very first “statistical analysis” provided on the FRC site is a straw man built using sampling bias.

        They use census data for married couples to determine the average length of straight relationships. Finding 50% of marriages last at least 20 years.

        For homosexual relationship numbers, they use a survey of about 8000 gay men and limit their sample to those who say they are in a “current relationship.”

        Do I need to explain how comparing married straight couples to gay men in any relationship is biased?

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    • Brazzy says:

      Can you cite any evidence whatsoever that even vaguely points towards gay-marriage proponents wanting to push “marriage to be something less meaningful”?

      Doesn’t the very fact that they want to be allowed to marry prove exactly the opposite: that more commitment/fidelity is what they’re after?

      Besides, the gay community is not monolithic. It’s perfectly possible (and indeed the most logical explanation of the apparent contradiction) that they value commitment/fidelity less *on average* but still have a minority who value it as much or more as your average heterosexual person, and that it’s this minority campaigning for the right to marry, with the others supporting them on general principles.

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      • Dave says:

        Sure, here’s a NYT article talking about how open relationships are widely accepted in the gay community:

        Note this paragraph which supports my stand (even though the tone of the article tries to spin these points as positive): “None of this is news in the gay community, but few will speak publicly about it. Of the dozen people in open relationships contacted for this column, no one would agree to use his or her full name, citing privacy concerns. They also worried that discussing the subject could undermine the legal fight for same-sex marriage.”

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      • kilroy says:

        If your marriage is only “meaningful” based on how everyone else’s marriage is going, then I sincerely feel bad for you.

        The meaningfulness of my marriage isn’t defined by how society views the instituiton as a whole. The sanctity of my marriage is the bond between me and my wife. If EVERY other marriage in the world were gay, open, and ended in divorce, it wouldn’t change the bond between my wife and I.

        The only meaning government marriage should have is property laws/hospital visitation, etc.

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      • Dave says:

        You’re right, it doesn’t affect how meaningful my (future) wife and my relationship is. It will, however, affect our (again, future) kids’ perception of how meaningful marriage is. That’s the point.

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      • Jon says:

        Only indirectly. You may very well be able to poison your children’s minds and the existence of same-sex marriage may give you an additional opening to do that. You are going to have to keep them sort of isolated, though, since they are going to grow up in a country where same-sex marriage is pretty common and fairly widely accepted — at least if you raise them in the U.S. The direction on this is very clear and both sides know it. That is what terrifies the bigots. They know anti-gay bigotry has the same future over the next half-century that racial bigotry had 50 years ago. It’s Japan in 1945 or Gaddafi in his last weeks. The war is lost but you can still cause as much pain as possible on the way down.

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    • James says:

      It appears from the daily news (and a certain amount of first-hand observation) that fidelity is not exactly universally valued in the heterosexual community, either. Indeed, it’s not all that difficult to find examples of this lack of fidelity among the political opponents of gay marriage.

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      • Dave says:

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  2. Ray Chatsworth says:

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  3. DanSanto says:

    I think it will take quite a bit longer than a decade, but I agree that eventually it will be adopted as socially normal. A decade? Nope. Try 20-30 years.

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    • Adriel says:

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      • Enter your name... says:

        Is this on the theory that “thy elders” are no longer part of society, so they shouldn’t have any say in how society operates?

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    • Jody says:

      I think it will be legalized when the baby-boomer generation stops being the dominant voting block. Marijuana will follow soon after.

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  4. Ray says:

    I feel like this analysis is missing something. Homosexual couples do not need the imprint of marriage to gain a relationship like the one described in the post that modern married heterosexual couples have. That is, it is entirely possible to have that relationship without being married and it would not surprise me in the least to discover that historically that has been what committed homosexual relationships have been.

    Homosexual couples desire the institution of marriage for the legal benefits. The access in times of medical crisis, the extension of employer benefits, the access to adoption, etc. These are the things that heterosexual couples have access to that are envied, not the particular interaction or division of labor within the marriage.

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    • J Upchurch says:

      I think Ray has hit it on the head. If you want to live with someone and love, honor and cherish them for the rest of rest of you life, then you don’t actually need the government permission to do it. I know a lot of heterosexual couples that live together without doing the paperwork. If they both work and have medical insurance through their jobs, then the advantages of actually getting formally married are not obvious.

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      • Thom says:

        In these instances where heterosexual couples choose to stay together for years but remain unmarried, the law in 15 states still favors them over their LGBT counterparts. These states have common-law marriage provisions that kick in generally after years of co-habitation, so even without a legal marriage, they get many of the legal rights of inheritance, hospital visitation, etc. Ironically, many of these 15 states are states that outlaw LGBT unions. So while making it impossible for LGBT men and women to legally protect themselves and their families, these states make it easier for straight people (even for those who are too lazy to do the paperwork). This is discrimination.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      I don’t think so.

      If Ray were right, then all gay couples would be perfectly content with a “civil union” that provides 100% of the legal rights and responsibilities that a “marriage” does. And they’re not content with an everything-but-the-name legal union.

      I think that at least some of them want the actual word “marriage” because they believe that it will bring them social benefits rather than legal ones.

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      • Zakafury says:

        Civil Unions are the very definition of “separate but equal.” This makes them discriminatory on the very face.

        I think you would find most advocates for same sex marriage would be happy if the government no longer recognized “marriage” at all. Everyone can have a civil partner for taxes an hospital visitations and such.

        Churches (temples, tabernacles, etc.) can own the word “marriage.” You would find those who argue on the ground of religious freedom (to oppress gays) will oppose this as well, since there are plenty of churches which will happily bless a same sex couple (and it’s a safe bet you could get the UUA to recognize two atheists as “married” too.)

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    • Ken Arromdee says:

      I don’t think that’s quite right. If gay people only wanted marriage for the legal benefits, they would be happy with civil unions as long as civil unions gave them all the legal rights of marriage. But the word “marriage” has been a big part over the battle. There are opponents who support civil unions but don’t want gay relationships to be called “marriage” and there are proponents who insist that gays must have marriages, not civil unions, to be treated like everyone else.

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      • Thom says:

        As one of those people that you describe, I think that you are missing the point, when trying to dismiss this as an issue of semantics. The reality is that no domestic partnership or civil union law that has been passed in the U.S. has provided all of the legal benefits of marriage. But even if they had offered LGBT people everything but the word equality in legal protections, it wasn’t the LGBT community that fought these, it was the conservative right.

        I live in Washington, D.C., where we currently have full marriage equality, providing us all of the protections that we can have, outside of those that are denied to us because of the Defense of Marriage Act. Allow me to provide some historical perspective. We fought for years for domestic partnership benefits, only to have these efforts repeatedly overturned by Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives. We then fought for civil unions, again having those efforts challenged by the right.

        The anti-marriage-equality crowd has a long history of opposing ANY AND ALL legal recognition for LGBT relationships. This fact most recently was reinforced by their passage of the NC state constitutional amendment that makes unconstitutional not only marriage, but also civil unions and domestic partnerships AND by their refusal to allow the passage a civil union bill in Colorado. Wisconsin’s Republican Governor Scott Walker recently overturned his states domestic partnership registry that only offered a few benefits like hospital visitation rights, but apparently even that is unacceptable for some people.

        So it’s a convenient lie when full marriage rights are being discussed to suggest that all would be fine if LGBT folks would just accept the rights in some form and leave the word “marriage” alone. The reality is that those opposed to marriage equality are just as stridently opposed to even the must mundane legal recognition.

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  5. Bill Harshaw says:

    The argument seems to fit pretty well with Richard Thompson Ford’s logic in The Race Card.

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  6. Jon says:

    How did you manage to write an article about what people have historically wanted out of marriage without ever mentioning sex? Especially a few generations ago, one of the primary benefits of marriage was society’s approval to be sexually active with your partner — an approval not available to same-sex couples, no matter what they did. How can you analyze the economics of marriage without considering sex?

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  7. Daniel says:

    “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.”

    Same-sex couples from that generation more likely didn’t find that type of marriage as “particularly appealing” because blatant homophobia was far more socially acceptable. I wonder how many “separate-sphere marriage” proponents would have opted to get married if it meant they would be giving away their social careers and risking their lives in the process…

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  8. RGJ says:

    Since to a large degree Obama is making a traditional state issue into a federal issue, does it stand to reason that spousal, widow and ex-spouse Social Security benefits will be granted?

    The first media hungry economist to gin up a number will be famous.

    And, before you thumbs down me for casting finance onto romance, I’m a libertarian. Marry who you want.

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    • James says:

      “Since to a large degree Obama is making a traditional state issue into a federal issue…”

      Not if you think about it. Quite apart from the fact that it was the Republicans who made it a federal issue with the Defense of Marriage Act, it has often been the role of the federal government to tell the states that they can not go beyond certain lines in denying general rights to citizens. Indeed, I believe this is its duty under Article 4 of the Constitution, and the 9th & 10th Amendments.

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    • Astraea says:

      Did you actually bother reading what Obama said? He expressly said that this is NOT a federal issue, it’s a state issue. So, I’m very confused by your comment.

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