No more Mad Men marriages for women
IPPR’s research showing that people are increasingly likely to pick a partner similar to themselves was widely reported this week (including a useful overview from Channel 4). Known in rather mechanical terms by academics as ‘assortative mating’, more than half (56%) of married women born between 1976-1981 married a partner in the same social class, compared to 45% among married women born in 1970 and just over a third (38%) of those born in 1958 (all asked when they were in their early 30s).
The research also shows that there has been a decline in the proportion of women ‘marrying up’ over the last 40 years, and for the first time a larger proportion of women are marrying a partner of a lower social class than themselves.
Some of the coverage got lost in the nostalgia of the Mad Men era, lamenting the decline in the phenomena whereby women were able to escape their lot by marrying the boss (whether lamenting on behalf of women or their bosses, it wasn’t clear). But the trends may also reflect the increased social and economic power of women.
The proportion of married women in professional and managerial occupations increased from 33% among those born in 1958 to 40% among those born in 1970 and over 50% in the cohort born between 1976 and 1981, while the proportion of unskilled and partly skilled women in the cohort declined. Seen in these terms, it’s possible that the increasingly homogenous marriage patterns reflected the post-war expansion of university and growth of middle class jobs, which opened up new opportunities to post-war generations of men and women. In these settings, men and women from similar educational and occupational levels mixed, and in some cases fell in love.
The story is more complex since the 1980s. Gaps in pay and educational achievement have narrowed between men and women. But this has occurred alongside a dramatic increase in wage inequality, affecting the way we interact in new and unexpected ways. Jobs done mainly by women such as caring have never been well-paid, but deindustrialisation and the decline of union power have also diminished the number of routes into well-paid work for working class men. Social segregation in marriage may reflect increasingly segregated workplaces, as education becomes increasingly linked to a person’s occupation, status and pay.
Whatever the causes, assortative mating is likely to exacerbate these wider inequalities, as wealth and poverty are concentrated in different households. One study found that, across the OECD, such marriage patterns have contributed to 11% of the rise in inequality since the mid-1980s. Intergenerational social mobility is also likely to decline, as well-off families are able to invest far more time and resources in their children’s education and development.
The new analysis is part of an on-going IPPR project on women’s lives across generations, which is exploring the intersection of class and gender and how it shapes women’s opportunities and aspirations. Marriage was never a desirable social mobility strategy for ambitious women, but these trends may help to shed light on the implications of broad economic and cultural shifts in British society. For policymakers, they spell out the need for universal childcare and high quality early years education to support female employment and ensure all children get the best start in life, regardless of who their parents fall in love with.
Tess Lanning is a research fellow at IPPR