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Modern women marrying men of the same or lower social class

equality, families, identity, population and demographics

Published date:  05 Apr 2012

Shift in marriage patterns has implications for social mobility and inequality



British women and men are choosing to marry partners who are increasingly from the same social class as themselves, despite modern society offering them more choice than ever before, according to new research by the think tank IPPR. The new analysis is part of an on-going IPPR project on how women’s aspirations have changed across different generations.

In the post-war period of rising social mobility, women increasingly married men who were both older and in a higher social class than themselves. But new IPPR analysis of cohort data sets – of women born in different generations since 1958 - shows that there has been a decline in the number of women ‘marrying up’ over the last 40 years combined with a small increase in women ‘marrying down’. There are now more ‘marrying down’, than ‘marrying up’. The biggest increase however, has been in the number of people who choose to marry within their own social class.

Most women continue to marry partners older than themselves but fewer are choosing partners just one or two years older and more are now marrying partners three or more years older. The biggest growth has been among women married to men seven or more than years older than themselves, which has almost doubled across the generations. A fifth of the latest generation of married women (born between 1976-1981 and aged 28-33 at the beginning of this decade) are with men seven or more than years older than themselves.

  • More than one in three women (39 per cent) born in 1958 had a partner in the same social class as themselves (by the time they were 33 years old) but almost as many (38 per cent) had married in a higher social class than themselves. Just one in five (23 per cent) of women born in 1958 had a partner from a lower social class than them, when they were asked in 1991.
  • The next generation of women, born in 1970 and aged 30 at the turn of the century, were more likely to have married in the same social class (45 per cent) but less likely to have a partner from a higher social class than themselves (32 per cent). They were also almost as likely to have married a partner from a lower social class than themselves (23 per cent).
  • The latest generation of women, born between 1976-1981 and aged 28-33 at the beginning of this decade, are even more likely to have married a partner in the same social class (56 per cent) and far less likely to have a partner from a higher social class than themselves (16 per cent). Most significantly, for this modern generation of women, a higher proportion have married a partner of a lower social class than themselves for the very first time (28 per cent).


In academic literature, this phenomena is known as ‘assortative mating’: picking a partner who is similar to yourself. It is very difficult to say for sure what has caused these big shifts over these three generations but we can identify key trends. With de-industrialisation and the growth of women working in junior, clerical office jobs, there was a 1950s and 1960s phenomena of women ‘marrying the boss’. As inequality rose in the 1980s, middle tier jobs were shed in the labour market, and education became more important to occupational outcomes, social class began to harden its grip on who people met and subsequently married.

IPPR argues that this phenomena matters because, as more people marry within their own class, it exacerbates wider income inequalities by concentrating wealth and poverty in different households. Child poverty rates increase and inter-generational social mobility may also decrease when better off people marry one other, partly because well-off people are able to invest more time and resources on their children’s education and development.


Nick Pearce, IPPR Director, said:

“This new analysis shows how social class has tightened its grip on marriage in Britain. In the post-war period of rising social mobility, men and women were more likely to marry across class lines than they do today. This shift has implications for inequality, as well educated, higher earners marry each other and then pass on the fruits of their combined success to their children.

“Age no longer seems to be a social taboo, with many more people marrying partners who are more than one or two years older than themselves than in the 1970s and 1980s.

“While governments have no business telling people who to marry, and have plenty of bigger economic inequalities to aim at, it is important for policymakers to understand these trends if they are to have a full understanding of what’s driving the stagnation in social mobility.”

Notes to Editors

IPPR’s latest analysis is based on Understanding Society (2009/10), the British Cohort Study (BCS70) and the National Child Development Study (NCDS58). It is part of an on-going project to understand women’s aspirations and expectations across generations. For more see: http://ippr.org/research-project/44/8462/women-across-generations-expectations-and-aspirations

IPPR’s analysis is supported by OECD data showing that in the UK ‘more people are marrying within the same earnings class’ and that unlike many other countries, the earnings gap between wives of rich and poor husbands has grown strongly: this gap was about £3,900 in 1987, but increased to £10,200 in 2004: http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/40/22/49170234.pdf

Across the OECD, 11 per cent of the rise in inequality since the mid-1980s can be accounted for by assortative mating: http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/40/12/49499779.pdf

IPPR’s analysis is supported by academic evidence from Sweden that shows “marriage behaviour is polarizing” and that ‘marital homogamy is resistant to policy efforts to increase social mobility. It argues thatgood early years education can help to counter this educational inequality, while universal childcare provision can help tackle household poverty by supporting female employment rates: http://dcpis.upf.edu/~gosta-esping-andersen/materials/equality.pdf

IPPR’s report - Making the case for universal childcare – is available to download from:

http://ippr.org/publications/55/8382/making-the-case-for-universal-childcare


Contact

Richard Darlington, 07525 481 602, r.darlington@ippr.org

Tim Finch, 07595 920899, t.finch@ippr.org