Money, Jobs Decide Who Cohabits Or Marries

February 08, 1999

ITHACA, N.Y. -- Changing values may not be the only reason why an increasing trend across the country is for couples to live together without being married. As with many things in life, money also plays a major role, according to a new Cornell University study.

Cohabitation tends to appeal to people in different economic circumstances from those who opt directly for marriage, says Marin Clarkberg, assistant professor of sociology at Cornell, in the March issue of the scholarly journal Social Forces (Vol. 77, No. 3).

On the one hand, she writes, women who choose cohabitation are more likely to earn more than either single or married women, whereas men who cohabit typically earn far less money than men who marry. On the other hand, both men and women who cohabit have less stable job histories than singles or spouses.

These findings suggest that cohabitation isn't necessarily driven by weak "family values" and may not always be a "middle" ground between being single and married. Clarkberg asserts that cohabitation attracts people in certain economic circumstances -- those, for example, who work in low-stability "McJobs." Surprisingly, Clarkberg says, although economic uncertainty seems to prevent some couples from proceeding down the aisle, it promotes cohabitation.

Clarkberg analyzed data on 12,841 participants in the National Longitudinal Study of the High School Class of 1972, administered in 1972, 1973, 1974, 1976, 1979 and 1986. Although the data set excluded high school dropouts, it was useful for tracking careers, income, earnings and employment experiences.

She says that a little more than half of all couples who married in the 1990s have lived together first. Clarkberg notes that the general trend is that about 60 percent of all couples who live together eventually end up tying the knot.

Over the past decade, cohabitation has soared by 85 percent, with almost 3.7 million American households now composed of unmarried couples. There are about 75 million households in the United States with more than one person in them.

"Once couples cohabit because of their economic circumstances, the cohabitation may becomes a slippery slope to marriage. In other words, couples decide to live together for economic reasons and as an expedient way to have a sexual relationship. Once they are cohabiting, though, it brings the question of marriage to the forefront, becoming a pathway to marriage."

She adds, "For those unsure about their economic prospects, living together and pooling resources in the short run may be a smarter strategy than simply living on one's own while waiting to mature into marriage material."

Then why do higher-earning women cohabit? Clarkberg speculates that these women may opt for living with their boyfriends as a way to enjoy the benefits of couplehood without having to sacrifice their careers during a critical career-building time. Cohabitation might also relieve women of the heavy burden of household responsibilities that wives often take on. Other studies have found that although cohabitating women do far more housework than their live-in boyfriends, they do substantially less than married women.

Clarkberg's study was supported, in part, by the Cornell Employment and Family Careers Institute, a Sloan Center for the Study of Working Families.
Related World Wide Web sites: The following sites provide additional information on this news release. Some might not be part of the Cornell University community, and Cornell has no control over their content or availability.

Marin Clarkberg:

Cornell's Dept. of Sociology:

Information about the quarterly journal Social Forces:

Cornell Employment and Family Careers Institute

Cornell University

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