Saturday, August 20, 2011

Asian Marriage Rates: Who? Whom?

The worst assumptions are those that you don't even realise you're making.

The Economist recently had an article discussing how marriage rates in Asia are dropping. The sub-heading tells you pretty much all you need to know:
Women are rejecting marriage in Asia. The social implications are serious
That would be serious.

But the first sentence actually hides two claims, not one. These are:

1. Marriage rates are dropping, and

2. This is primarily the result of women actively deciding to avoid marriage.

So what is the evidence the article marshals in favour of each of its claims?

The first one seems on fairly solid ground:
Marriage rates are falling partly because people are postponing getting hitched.The mean age of marriage in the richest places—Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong—has risen sharply in the past few decades, to reach 29-30 for women and 31-33 for men.
Almost a third of Japanese women in their early 30s are unmarried; probably half of those will always be. Over one-fifth of Taiwanese women in their late 30s are single; most will never marry.
Okay, this probably doesn't surprise too many people - it's happening everywhere. But how about the second claim? How do we know this is a choice by women?
That’s partly because, for a woman, being both employed and married is tough in Asia. Japanese women, who typically work 40 hours a week in the office, then do, on average, another 30 hours of housework. Their husbands, on average, do three hours.
I'd want to see where these numbers came from - are the women who are working also doing the housework, or are they disjoint sets ( i.e. the average woman does both work and housework, but this is made up of some who only work and some who only do housework). But I'll give them the benefit of the doubt - let's assume married Asian women who also work still do a lot of housework. Anything else?
Not surprisingly, Asian women have an unusually pessimistic view of marriage. According to a survey carried out this year, many fewer Japanese women felt positive about their marriage than did Japanese men, or American women or men.
Okay, so women who are married report being unsatisfied. From this the author concludes that women who aren't married are avoiding marriage based on anticipating the same feelings. Let me translate this into a metaphor in a different context to see if any alternative hypotheses might more readily present themselves:
My friend Timmy got a new bicycle for his fifth birthday, but now he doesn't play on it much. I don't have a bicycle, but seeing that Timmy doesn't use his much any more, I stopped wanting one.
See the problem? How about buyer's remorse as an alternative? In other words, it's entirely plausible that a lot of women desire marriage beforehand, but only once they get there do they realise it's not all it's cracked up to be. Does this sound like human nature to you?

Now, I'm not claiming massive evidence in favour of this proposition either. But let's be clear - the article doesn't even countenance the possibility that marriage rates in Asia are dropping because of choices by men, not women. 

Let's go out on a TOTALLY CRAZY LIMB HERE, and propose the following meth-and-LSD-induced alternative hypotheses, purely to play devil's advocate:

-Women are more attractive in their 20s than in their 30s. The decision to pursue education and careers in their 20s makes them seek out marriage later only when they are less physically attractive, at which point men are no longer interested. Such women who miss out on marriage are filled with regret.

-Men in Asia are avoiding marriage because divorce law favours women too much, and thus they see marriage as a raw deal for them.

Are these right? Who the hell knows?! But ask yourself the following - do we really have strong reasons to prefer the author's 'every trend is the result of informed and rational choices by women'  hypothesis over either of the above? The unstated assumption, which the author probably doesn't even realise they're making, is that women are always the who, and men the whom, in Lenin's famous formulation.

If you wanted to tell the hypotheses apart, wouldn't you start by surveying men and women who aren't married, and asking them if they're actually looking for marriage? Or asking them if they're actively avoiding marriage, and if so, why?

Given how flimsy the evidence, let's evaluate the article's conclusion:
Relaxing divorce laws might, paradoxically, boost marriage. Women who now steer clear of wedlock might be more willing to tie the knot if they know it can be untied—not just because they can get out of the marriage if it doesn’t work, but also because their freedom to leave might keep their husbands on their toes. Family law should give divorced women a more generous share of the couple’s assets. Governments should also legislate to get employers to offer both maternal and paternal leave, and provide or subsidise child care.
If this trend is all the result of women's time-consistent choices to avoid marriage, then yes, you would need to make marriage more attractive to women to reverse this trend, and these policies might accomplish this.

If this trend is the result of women's time-inconsistent choices to inadvertently avoid marriage, then most of these policies would do very little. The only one that might work (and highly ironically) is forcing unsubsidised maternity leave and child care on employers  - the most immediate effect would be businesses avoiding hiring women of child-bearing age. The resulting female unemployment may end up pushing women away from education and jobs and into marriage. I don't think this is what the author had in mind though.

If this trend is the result of men's time-consistent (or time-inconsistent) choices to avoid marriage because they think it's a raw deal, then these policies (especially giving more assets to women in divorce) would be disastrous.

Repeat this type of article dozens of times, and you start to realise why the endorsement of a particular policy position by The Economist does not fill me with reverence and awe.

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