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Published on Feb 15, 2016


It is commonly observed that, over time and across societies, women tend to marry older men. In the economics literature, the conventional explanation is that wages rise with age and hence men, who are the breadwinners in specialized families, are more attractive to women at older ages.

Knowing this, young men will wait for the better marriage opportunities that come along with higher salaries at older ages. Historically this rationale played a role.

For most of human history gender specialization in marriage was strong and many models rightfully reflected this strong historical specialization (e.g. Bergstrom and Bagnoli, 1993).1 However, with the tremendous rise in the labor force participation of women over the last four decades and the increasing fraction of families in which women earn more than men, the compelling nature of the conventional economic argument begins to break down.

If the conventional economic argument was the only explanation, the rise in women’s economic independence should have relaxed the necessity of younger women marrying older men. In fact, between 1960 and 1990, female labor forceparticipation rose from approximately 35% to approximately 60% (leveling off in the 1990’s). During this time the wage gap (adjusting for skills) between women and men declined.

Moreover, by the 1990s more than one-third of dual income families had women earning more than men.2 However, the age difference at marriage between men and women barely moved. According to the US Census, the difference in the median age between men and women at first marriage was 2.5 years in 1960. Thirty years later, in spite of tremendous social changes the difference in the median age at first marriage between men and women was still 2.3 years.

Search Model of Marriage with Differential Fecundity

In this section we develop a simple overlapping generations model where people live two periods, women are fertile only in the first period and men are fertile in both periods. This simplification will allow us to obtain closed form solutions of the strategies and to prove existence and uniqueness. In the next section we will generalize this model allowing people to live a larger number of periods, and where the fecundity horizon for women is shorter than the one for men. The numerical solution for the generalized model is then compared with census data.

The important changes in gender roles observed in the last decades occurred along side a delay of marriage for both sexes rather than a decrease in the age difference at first marriage between men and women. This is inconsistent with the purest version of the conventional economic model and is one reason to revisit our marriage models. A second reason is that, even when women specialized in home production, the economic model may not have been as important as has been suggested.

For example, the common occurrence of a young woman marrying her high school sweetheart who is two years older, seems hard to explain using a purely "gains-from-trade type" argument. With wages continuing to rise steeply with age among the young it is reasonable that even more gains to trade could occur if women married even older men. Finally, from a theoretical point of view, these models implicitly assume the myopia of women, imperfect capital markets or imperfect information about men’s ability. It seems desirable to understand whether the age difference can be derived in a model without these auxiliary assumptions.

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Copyright : Eugenio Pedro Giolito, Doctor of Philosophy