The 23-year-old daughter of a friend has decided not to follow her True Love to his new job out West. Her father, puzzled at this turn of events, asked her why. "I've only worked a year and a half at my job here," she told him, "and I'm just beginning to get established. When you and Mom got divorced, if she hadn't had a career to fall back on, she'd have gone crazy."
The recent survey by Women's Day magazine and the polling firm of Yankelovich, Skelly & White found that 92 percent of the 56,500 women who answered their questionnaire believe that women who see marriage as a means to financial security are making a big mistake. They have seen their own parents or siblings divorce, and their best friends divorce. They, like everyone else, have seen marriages that appear stable and happy as can be shatter. More and more, it would seem, women are seeing careers as a new and necessary form of life insurance against the financial disaster that often accompanies divorce.
A new study by two economists at the University of Virginia -- William Johnson and Jonathan Skinner -- looked at the relationship between the increase in the ranks of working women and the increase in divorce over the last four decades and found statistical evidence that fear of eventual divorce is one of a number of factors that is contributing to the rising number of working women. But, said Johnson in an interview, they found no evidence to support the theory that women are divorcing more because they are working more.
"Our main purpose was to see if women who faced higher risks of divorce work more when they are married," he said. "The reason we were interested in this was twofold: first, if that is true, then it provides a partial explanation for the increase in women's work over the last 30 or 40 years. One thing driving it is the rising probability of divorce. Second, we looked at data on women who actually do divorce and their labor supply. What we expected to find is when they get divorced, they work more. We find that. But we found also that they start to work more three to five years before they get divorced. One explanation is that married women see the handwriting on the wall. Those that divorced realized they are more likely to divorce and start working more.
"The main study was to find if there was any relationship between the probability of someone who gets divorced and their working behavior when they are married."
Johnson drew the analogy between that and what insurance companies do in trying to determine who is likely to have an auto accident and therefore who should be paying higher insurance rates. "They know the characteristics of people who in the past have been associated with having accidents, like an unmarried male driving a Corvette. That's sort of what we were doing."
They did a statistical analysis of the Michigan Panel Survey of Income Dynamics, a survey that has been following 5,000 families for the past two decades. They looked at women who were married in 1972 and then, by following them over a period of years, looked at the characteristics of those who eventually divorced. "We computed an equation for divorce that would tell us what factors would make people more likely to be divorced and what factors would make them less likely to be divorced."
Holding all other factors constant, Johnson said, they found "that women with higher probabilities of divorce are more likely to work when they are married and more likely to work more hours. They're protecting themselves against the eventuality of getting divorced," by putting more of a commitment into their careers. They found that the average number of hours worked by married women who actually got divorced rose from an annual average of 744 hours six years before separation to 1,024 the year before the separation, and 1,551 four years after the separation.
Johnson said several other characteristics were associated with divorce or long marriages. "People who go to church or religious services a lot tend not to get divorced. People who live in nonurban areas tend not to get divorced as much. This is pure speculation, but it might be that social networks are tighter, there may be more disapproval of divorce in nonurban areas. People who live close to relatives tend not to get divorced or are less likely to."
There is, of course, no way to predict divorce. But what does seem to have happened is that women sensed danger and reacted rationally by turning to the labor market for financial security. It may be a bleak commentary on our hopes for marriages, but it's a pragmatic reaction -- and certainly better than falling apart.