Marriage is an unexpected fringe benefit of a quality job in the United States: Food for thought this holiday shopping season

A Target employee helps a Black Friday shopper find top deals at Target on Thursday, Nov. 22, 2018 in Maple Grove, Minnesota.

The holiday shopping season is now upon us, and U.S. retail workers are in a crunch. They are working long, often unpredictable hours. The stresses of retail work are on high volume during the holidays, but retail workers experience low pay, lack of fringe benefits, and volatile hours year round. In fact, 87 percent of retail workers who are early in their careers report instability in their work hours.

While research has long shown that working under these difficult conditions causes stress, financial instability, and health problems, research released in an Equitable Growth working paper today shines a new light on a surprising consequence of poor job quality: Working a low-quality job affects a worker’s propensity to marry. Unstable working conditions reach past the bounds of the workplace to affect deeply personal aspects of workers’ lives, impeding their ability to form and formalize the families they desire.

Since 1970, low-educated workers, including retail workers, have experienced precipitous drops in compensation, job security, and job quality, while more highly educated workers have been relatively insulated from these changes. Over this same period, rates of marriage have declined and that decline, too, has been concentrated among people with low levels of education.

Existing research convincingly demonstrates the link between marriage and earnings. For men in older cohorts, higher earnings are predictive of marriage. And today, higher earnings for both men and women predict entry into first marriage. This means that low-earning men and women are less likely to tie the knot than their higher-earning counterparts.

The bifurcation of the U.S. labor market extends past earnings to job quality, and that’s where the new research by Kristen Harknett of the University of California, San Francisco and Daniel Schneider and Matthew Stimpson of the University of California, Berkeley comes in. The three authors take advantage of the rich set of job-quality variables in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, a unique survey that starts following people when they are young and collects data as their lives unfold. Using NLSY’s measures of job quality—including salaried pay and access to fringe benefits, paid maternity leave, and predictable schedules—the authors look at the trajectories toward romantic-union formation for men and women in recent cohorts. They find that for both men and women, these measures of job quality are predictive of marriage.

This in itself is not surprising. Low-quality jobs tend to be poorly compensated and demographers know that earnings levels affect marriage rates. But the authors use a rich set of controls that includes earnings, and yet they still find that differences in job quality explain at least 15 percent of the difference in rates of first marriage between people with bachelor’s degrees and people without high school diplomas. Overall, the authors find that a worker with a low-quality job and a worker with a higher-quality job who are taking home identical paychecks have very different chances of walking down the aisle.

While initially surprising, this finding makes intuitive sense. When a worker lacks fringe benefits that could cover a partner and struggles to make financial plans because her take-home pay changes week to week, when maternity leave is not in the cards, and when work hours fluctuate so that scheduling childcare (not to mention a date night) is a nightmare, formalizing a partnership and forming a family is hard. This is not a story about pay alone: Job quality matters.

In October, I wrote about the importance of ensuring that people have the resources they need to form the families they desire. Proponents of marriage should note that a larger paycheck is not enough—job quality matters, too. Marriage advocates should explore ongoing initiatives to provide today’s workers with the stable schedules and fringe benefits to which more of us had access in the past.

The next time the cashier scans your stocking stuffer, take a moment to think about the bifurcation of the U.S. labor market and its far-reaching consequences for America’s workforce.


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