There’s a chapter about the economics of marriage that particularly drew my attention. I always associated increasing divorce rates with increasing number of unhappy couples. Never before I thought that a non-zero divorce rate can actually mean a good thing for society. As economic researcher Justin Wolfers comments “We know there exists something called the optimal divorce rate, and we’re one hundred percent sure it’s not zero.” There’s a totally rational and economic reason behind this: the ability to leave her spouse represents self-reliance for women.
At the beginning of the 20th century when divorce rates were relatively low in US, women could not easily walk out of marriages because making a living for them and their children was quite difficult. The clear and prevalent division of labor between a husband and wife made sure that the wife stayed at home. The husband was the bread-winner and the wife was the house-maker. Very few (mostly in extremely poor families) wives worked outside their houses. This made both spouses heavily dependent on, hence stuck with, each other. The “divorce revolution” that followed in later part of the century, was driven by a fundamental economic force: the breakdown of this division of labor in marriages.
As technological revolution rolled out (70’s and 80’s), housework became easier to manage (with the help of washing machines, microwave ovens, dish-washers etc.) Women now have more time at hand, and because of computers and other technological innovations, new jobs required less muscle power. Thus it also became easier for women to enter the workforce and they started to become self-reliant. A divorce no longer meant an economic suicide.
And that started a self-reinforcing loop. As more people got divorced, more divorcees became available in the “marriage market”, which made it easier to get remarried. And as divorce rates went up, women realized the risk and reacted rationally by making themselves more educated and self-reliant. It became rational for women to maintain career options.
It’s not that people are more unhappy with their marriages today than they were 50 years ago. It’s just that people who are unhappy with their marriages can now do something about it.
The divorce rate in US is no longer increasing. And there’s a rational explanation for that too. In the long run, the optimal strategy is not to divorce more, but to marry less and also divorce less. This can be easily seen in today’s society where we see couples extending their marriages until they feel fully comfortable and certain.
Parallels can be easily drawn and extended to Indian society, where divorce rates are still low but there are growing concerns about rising divorce rates (Here’s one example). But may be it’s not such a bad thing after all…?