Higher Divorce Risk Raises Women’s Working Hours

In the latest of a series of interviews from the Royal Economic Society Conference 2007, Romesh Vaitilingam talks to Kerry Papps the effect of divorce on women and work.

Married women work more hours in the labour market when they face a high likelihood of divorce: for example, a woman who is unhappy with her marriage will work on average 283 hours more in the following year than a woman who is very happy with her marriage. In contrast, married men are unaffected by the probability of divorce.

These are among the findings of new research by Kerry Papps. The study also finds that both single men and single women work more when they have a high chance of marrying in the near future.

These findings are generally consistent with the idea that people take account of their future wellbeing and specialise when they are married by working either in the labour market or at home. If a married woman who maintains a household believes that divorce is impending, she will wish to enter the labour market or increase hours of paid work, because this will allow her to acquire more work experience and boost her potential income in the future, when she may be forced to rely on her own resources.

Labour force participation among married American women increased steadily for four decades from 1950, largely due to major increases in the wage rate paid to women. During the 1990s, however, this growth stalled, despite unprecedented wage gains for married women over the decade.

At least part of this and other inconsistencies in the wage explanation is likely explained by changes in divorce rates, which peaked in the early 1980s in the United States, along with the UK and other western countries, after two decades of increases.

This study analyses data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which focuses on a representative sample of Americans who were teenagers in 1979 and has asked a wide range of questions every one or two years since. A fundamental problem is how to measure a persons chance of marrying or divorcing, as this obviously cannot be directly observed.

The paper takes three different approaches to estimating probabilities of changing marital status, all of which yield the same conclusions:

  • First, marriage and divorce rates among people with similar demographic characteristics are used.
  • Second, whether or not a survey respondent changes marital status in the year following any interview is used to form probabilities of marriage and divorce. A complication with this approach is that work decisions are likely to influence the likelihood of marriage or divorce in the future, necessitating the use of statistical techniques to deal with the possibility of causal relationships in two directions. Doubling a womans probability of divorce will result in her working 60 additional hours a year, all else being equal.
  • Finally, an innovation of this study is to measure of the risk of divorce by using peoples evaluations of how happy they are with their marriages. This avoids many of the problems of the other approaches. The results are statistically significant and are striking: a woman who is unhappy with her marriage will work on average 283 hours more (or 6 hours per working week) in the following year than a woman who is very happy with her marriage.

The evidence indicates that there are two distinct dimensions to the relationship between work hours and the risk of divorce. Woman in demographic groups that suffer from high divorce rates tend to work long hours over their entire lives. Meanwhile, individual married women also respond to unexpected increases in the likelihood of divorce from year-to-year by increasing the hours they spend in paid work.

These findings point to an unexpected negative consequence of a falling divorce rate and imply that this may hamper government efforts to increase labour force participation among married women. If current trends persist, ever-larger wage gains may be needed to induce more married women to enter the workforce.

Notes for editors: The Effects of Divorce Risk on the Labour Supply of Married Couples by Kerry Papps was presented at the Royal Economic Societys 2007 annual conference at the University of Warwick, 11-13 April.

Kerry Papps is at Cornell University.

For further information: Romesh Vaitilingam on 07768-661095 (email: romesh@compuserve.com).

Find more papers by Kerry Papps at EconPapers and search for more Internet resources on the issues of women and economics and labour economics.

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