From rational economics to irrational love? Examining the changing function of marriage

From rational economics to irrational love? Examining the changing function of marriage

The past few decades have seen a marked change in societal attitudes towards marriage across much of the world. Previously enjoying a revered status as a fundamental societal institution, the role of modern marriage is now looking a lot more questionable. Australian couples are saying ‘I do’ less frequently, with the crude marriage rate, the average number of marriages per 1000 Australians in a given year, showing a steady decline since its relative peak of 9.3 in 1970 to the 2013 figure of 5.1.[i] Couples are also delaying the taking of their vows, with the average female married at 28.3 and average male at 29.9, marking a setback of 5 years compared to 3 decades ago.[ii] These trends have been mirrored across much of the modern world, with 87% of all countries experiencing a decline in marriage rates since the 1980s.[iii]


Number of Marriages



Why is this trend occurring?

Although the factors leading to such a decline are undeniably complex, it appears that the primary cause is a fundamental shift in the role of marriage within society. Marriage, previously an economic institution focused on maximising production within the family unit, is now more aptly viewed as an economic institution focused on shared consumption and enjoyment.[iv] In layman’s terms, modern marriage is all about companionship and the elusive, unquantifiable concept of ‘love’.

With our modern conception of marriage so strongly tied with concepts of Hollywood-esque ‘romance’, it’s easy to forget that marriage was designed as a long-term economic contract,[v] enforceable in law and by societal norms. Such a contract made rational sense in the context of the previously clear gendered division of labour and the societal era; husbands would work in the market and wives would work at home, producing household services and commodities. Comparative advantage flowed from this traditional pattern of specialisation, with husbands receiving goods and services they could not feasibly produce on their own and their dutiful wives reaping the economic and protective benefits of their husband’s labour.[vi] This model was rightfully turned on its head with the influence of the Women’s Rights Movement in the 1960s, which opened up the labour market to women, dismantling the necessity of traditional specialisation.

Attitudinal factors such as the destigmatised nature of de facto relationships and children born out of wedlock have of course contributed to the declining necessity of marriage. However, the economic liberalisation and the transition of marriage from an economic necessity to an institution focused on needs of a higher order has characterised much of the trends of the past decades.

In the context of Maslow’s renowned hierarchy of needs, marriage has shifted away a requisite element of satisfying needs of basal orders to a focus on love, self-esteem and, increasingly, self-actualisation. In simpler terms, modern marriage is more in the realm of ‘want’ than a ‘need’ in comparison to traditional marriage, with the decreased relative importance of marriage reflected in marital trends of the past decades. Interestingly, as marriage has become a more emotionally satisfying relationship, it has also becoming less stable as an institution prior to the inception of no-fault divorce laws and traditional marriage.[vii]




So what does the future look like for marriage?

When examined as a social and economic construct, it would not be surprising that rules governing marriage and divorce eventually cave to the pressure of de-regulation of the marriage market, as the notion of marriage becomes increasingly synonymous with ‘love’. As such, the continued push for LGBT rights sits comfortably with the changing purpose of modern marriage. However, it is understandable that fundamentalist sections of the populace will still adamantly hold onto the vestiges of traditional notions of marriage, with its rich religious and cultural history.


We hope you enjoyed this ESSA Article and our 2017 O-Week festivities! Are you a Monash university student with an interest in economics? Learn how you can join our publications team here:


[i] “Marriage In Australia”. Australian Institute of Family Studies. N.p., 2016. Web.

[ii] “Fast Facts On Marriages In Australia”. N.p., 2016. Web.

[iii] “World Marriage Data 2008: Data”. N.p., 2016. Web.

[iv] Merrill, Jacqueline. An Economist’s View of Marriage. Social Science and Public Policy, 2010. Print.

[v] Becker, Gary S. A Treatise On The Family. Cambridge, Mass. [u.a.]: Harvard Univ. Press, 1991. Print.

[vi] “Get Together For The Kids | VOX, CEPR’S Policy Portal”. N.p., 2016. Web. 14 Aug. 2016.

[vii] Coontz, Stephanie. Marriage, A History. New York [etc.]: Viking Press, 2005. Print.