Sex Roles, Vol. 51, Nos. 7/8, October 2004 (
Crossing the Threshold: Men’s Incomes, Attitudes Toward
the Provider Role, and Marriage Timing
Heather L. Koball
The later marriages of recent cohorts have been attributed, in part, to men’s declining real
wages and women’s preferences for high-earning mates. This study was designed to investi-
gate the inﬂuence of men’s gender role attitudes and income on their entrance into marriage.
Data come from the longitudinal High School and Beyond survey. The results show that
if men anticipated being the primary economic provider in their marriages, their incomes
predicted their likelihood of marriage. Income had little effect on marriage for men who ex-
pected to share the provider role. The ﬁndings indicate that the relationship between men’s
income and marriage is inﬂuenced by their gender role attitudes.
KEY WORDS: marriage; gender role attitudes; income.
In an era of increasingly ﬂexible gender roles,
does a man’s economic status play a less impor-
tant role in determining whether he marries? Re-
cent birth cohorts have entered ﬁrst marriages sev-
eral years later than did their parents (Espenshade,
1985; U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1988). During this
same time period, men’s unemployment rose and re-
mained high for young men (Levy & Murnane, 1992).
Real wages stagnated, such that earning a family
wage was no longer possible for many young men
(Coontz, 1992). Younger cohorts adopted more ﬂex-
ible views of men’s and women’s roles in marriage.
Many Americans expressed support for mothers’
working outside the home and for men’s participa-
tion in homemaking and childcare (Thornton, 1989).
Because of these three simultaneous trends in
contemporary American life—decreased marriage
rates, lowered economic opportunity for young men,
and greater ﬂexibility of gender roles—considerable
attention has been focused on how they are interre-
lated. Much of this attention has been on the causes
and consequences of these trends in women’s lives.
The effect of women’s increased economic strength
To whom correspondence should be addressed at National
Center for Children in Poverty, Columbia University, 215 W.
125th St, New York, New York 10027; e-mail hk2163@columbia.
relative to men’s and the effect of the redeﬁnition
of women’s roles in families on the institution of
marriage have been investigated with thoroughness
by sociological researchers (e.g., Bennet, Bloom, &
Craig, 1989; Blossfeld & Huinink, 1991; McLaughlin
& Lichter, 1997; Thornton & Freedman, 1979). There
has been less research on how changes in employ-
ment and gender role attitudes are interrelated in
A prevalent explanation for the low marriage
rates of men with low earnings is that men with well-
paid employment are more attractive potential mates
(e.g., Lichter, McLaughlin, Kephart, & Landry, 1992;
South & Lloyd, 1992; Wilson, 1987). Marriage has
been conceptualized as an exchange of men’s eco-
nomic provision for women’s domestic skills (Becker,
1981) and as an institution that confers husbands’
economic status on their wives (Hiller & Philliber,
1986). From these perspectives on marriage, higher
earning men make more attractive potential partners
and have more opportunity to marry than do men
with lower earnings.
In fact, research shows a direct link between
men’s incomes and marriage rates. Women’s mar-
riage rates are higher in areas with more “marriage-
able men,” which is deﬁned as men with higher in-
comes (e.g., Lichter, LeClere, & McLaughlin, 1991;
2004 Springer Science+Business Media, Inc.