Hark, the sound of wedding bells pealing across the land – the marriage rate is creeping back up, according to the latest CSO data released this week. There were 22,045 marriages in Ireland last year – that's a respectable marriage rate of 4.8 per 1,000 of the population, up from 4.3 in 2011.
If you track marriage rates over the past 25 years or so it appears easy to discern a pattern of marriage rates correlating to economic prosperity – the Noughties were a veritable boom time for marriages, with the rate staying above 5.0 for most of the decade, noticeably declining only in 2008 when the bubble had truly burst.
Of course, at the macro level these figures force us to confront the slightly uncomfortable truth that marriage is not purely an immutable expression of love and devotion but is, rather, subject to larger patterns of economic prosperity. To which economists and sociologists might respond: “Duh”.
The most prominent work in the area of the economics of marriage was carried out by the hugely influential Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker, who spent much of his career applying theories of free-market rationalism to the family unit.
In a seminal 1973 paper, “A Theory of Marriage”, Becker attempted to determine a model for the marriage market: “Two simple principles form the heart of the analysis. The first is that . . . persons marrying (or their parents) can be assumed to expect to raise their utility level above what it would be were they to remain single. The second is that, since many men and women compete as they seek mates, a market in marriages can be presumed to exist. Each person tries to find the best mate, subject to the restrictions imposed by market conditions.”
Language of love
Not the most romantic paragraph ever written about marriage, perhaps, but it has a lot of profound implications, principally that marriage has long been an economic arrangement no matter how much we dress it up in the language of love and romance.
However, while the marriage market can be seen to exist, and the market is subject to external economic conditions, it doesn’t necessarily follow that marriage rates correlate with the wider economy.
Back in 2010, Australian economist Justin Wolfers wrote an editorial in the New York Times that scathingly dismissed the spate of articles in the media drawing clumsy conclusions from the parallel downturn of the economy and declining marriage rates: "If you look at marriage in the United States over the past century, this interpretation doesn't stand up. Marriage and divorce rates have remained remarkably immune to the ups and downs of the business cycle. Unfortunately, the marriage statistics are easy to misread . . . Indeed, the recent modest decline in marriage continues a 30-year trend."
Wolfers makes a critical point there – marriage rates are in decline all over the developed world, and have been for decades now.
Tellingly, the marriage rate in Ireland in 1970 was an impressive 7.1 per 1,000 of the population, and it’s not as if the Irish economy in 1970 was going gangbusters, with GDP of less than $1,500 per capita, compared to about $50,000 in 2013. And we’re actually doing pretty well by European standards – marriage rates in Italy have halved since 1965.
That decline is actually a function of something we should be very pleased about – the increasing economic opportunities enjoyed by women, particularly working class women, across the developed world.
That shift has inevitably transformed the marriage market, allowing women to be far choosier in picking a husband, rather than settling for the first opportunity out of economic necessity.
Yet the final word must go to Becker, who acknowledged that “marital patterns differ among societies and change over time in a variety of ways that challenge any single theory”. Which helps to explain the rather striking symmetry contained in this week’s CSO data – the marriage rate of 4.8 in 2014 is exactly the same as the first year the marriage rate was recorded here, which was 150 years ago, in 1864.
So you can bet your diamond ring that marriage patterns will shift again in our lifetimes, and more theories will be developed to explain them.