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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, 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.