The Case for Marrying a Man Without a Steady Job

In an era of greater economic autonomy for women, a narrowing gender pay gap (PDF), and higher rates of labor force participation, 78 percent of women still say finding a husband with a regular job is important. For men, on the other hand, only 46 percent consider it important to have a wife with steady employment.

What modern women may not realize is that a husband with more marginal employment can increase the wife’s own earnings. That’s one way to read a study tracking the careers of 629 University of Chicago MBAs (PDF) over 16 years. After controlling for different skills, occupations, and children, the study’s authors found that the income of women in the sample was strongly related to their husband’s income. Those who married high-earning men (defined as having an income of more than $200,000 a year) earned much less themselves and were less likely to work once they had children. If the women MBAs did work, it was often part-time or in less high-powered careers. Women who married “lower earners” (in this rarefied population, a low-earning spouse had income of less than $100,000) made the same as their male MBA peers.

This was the case only if the marriage produced children; childless women earned more when they married a rich man. And it’s not clear exactly what caused this result among the MBAs with children. It could be that women with lower-earning spouses needed to work more to support their growing families. Or perhaps they had big career ambitions and chose a less-ambitious partner to support their success. A marginally employed spouse is likely to have more flexibility to move for his partner’s career and provide child care. These, it’s worth noting, are the same marital trade-offs that have benefited ambitious men for years.

Some of the lessons from the Chicago MBA study can apply to those of us outside the 1 Percent. True, there are plenty of good reasons to want a fully employed partner. Many people see two incomes as a financial necessity, and a spouse with stable employment shares responsibility for earnings and health benefits. Less quantifiably, the ability to hold a job could signal a more stable personality and better partner.

But if the steady-job requirement is discouraging women from otherwise satisfying partnerships, that’s a mistake. It’s better to be married (at least from an earnings perspective) for women of all income levels. Among women ages 40 to 49, marrieds earn more than singles at all education levels.

Lower-earning spouses have the potential to increase their earnings further, something many families have already learned. By choice or by happenstance, married mothers out-earn their husbands in 15 percent of households, up fourfold since 1960. There are reasons to believe that trend will continue: About 39 percent of women ages 25 to 34 have at least a college degree, while only 33 percent of men that age do. And the economy is shifting toward more jobs in fields in which women traditionally worked, including health care and education.

When the expense of child and home care exceed income, it’s cost-effective for households to have a stay-at-home spouse. As women advance in the labor market, that stay-at-home role may be increasingly filled by men. And so our values might also change, and a man without a steady job may no longer be a deal-breaker.

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