Opinion | Will ‘Future You’ Thank ‘Today You’ for Getting Married?

My son is getting married this weekend, so I’m full of happy thoughts about marriage. But I want to get to those happy thoughts by way of talking about vampires.

L.A. Paul, a professor of philosophy and cognitive science at Yale, began her 2014 book, “Transformative Experience,” by asking readers to imagine they’ve been given the opportunity to become a vampire. All their friends have become vampires, and they seem happy and stylish, not to mention immortal.

Trouble is, Paul wrote, “you cannot know what it is like to be a vampire until you are one.” And there’s no going back. She called this “a special sort of epistemic situation.” Special, yet not unusual. Paul wrote, “For many big life choices, we only learn what we need to know after we’ve done it, and we change ourselves in the process of doing it.”

Getting married is probably as transformative as becoming a vampire, minus the bits about shunning garlic, sleeping in a coffin and never going back.

Paul credited Jordan Ellenberg, a mathematician at the University of Wisconsin, with originating the vampire allegory in a 2013 blog post. The economist Russ Roberts, in turn, credited Paul in his 2022 book, “Wild Problems: A Guide to the Decisions That Define Us.”

“Wild problems,” Roberts wrote, “are untamed, undomesticated, spontaneous, organic, complex.”

Roberts cited the story of how Charles Darwin decided in 1838 to get married. Darwin made lists of “marry” and “not marry” scenarios, precisely as one would expect from a great scientist. At some point, though, he went with his gut. At the bottom of the page is scrawled, “Marry — Marry — Marry Q.E.D.” Which is Latin for “that which was to be demonstrated,” as if he had demonstrated anything except his own susceptibility to love.

The decision of whether to marry is hard for economists to grapple with because the usual method of toting up pluses and minuses doesn’t work well. Who are you trying to please? Today you or future you? Future married you will probably be happy, but he or she is a different person. Future you is you but also not you, if you know what I mean.

That said, most married people are thankful to their past single selves for deciding to wed. (I certainly am.) A 2004 study estimated that the size of the marriage effect on mental well-being in Britain and the United States was equivalent to having an extra $100,000 a year. One of the authors of that paper, Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick, found in a paper he co-wrote a year later that the health gain from marriage “may be as large as the benefit from giving up smoking.”

Marriages don’t always work, and they’re not the only way to live and raise kids, as my Opinion colleague Ezra Klein observed in a June podcast. On average, though, I think children grow up best in intact, two-parent households, and married parents are more likely to stay together than cohabiting unmarried ones. In the early 1990s, 71 percent of children born to cohabiting unmarried parents could expect their parents to separate by their 12th birthday, compared with only 26 percent of children born to married parents, a 2008 study in the journal Demographic Research found. If maximizing the happiness of children and the adults they grow into is one of society’s principal goals — and it should be — then few things are more important than marriage.

There’s some evidence that heterosexual marriage has a civilizing influence on men, who, left to their own devices, can be dogs. In fact, I’m guessing that in almost every union, there’s one person who’s more in need of being civilized.

It’s unfortunate, then, that fewer people are getting married. In 1900, 9.3 marriages occurred per 1,000 people. The rate peaked at 16.4 in 1946, when the troops came home from World War II. The rate was 10.6 in 1980 but has been on a steady decline since, dipping to 6.5 in 2018 and 6.0 in 2021, according to provisional data from the National Center for Health Statistics.

While some of the decline can be attributed to the aging of society, it’s also a fact that more people are living alone, by choice or force of circumstance. Forty-six percent of males 15 and over were divorced or never married last year, up from 28 percent in 1950, according to my calculations using Census Bureau data. Among females, it was 42 percent, up from 22 percent in 1950. (By the way, I know, we wouldn’t want 15-year-olds to be married.)

Income inequality is hell for marriage. The share of 33-to-44-year-olds in the top fifth of the population by income who are married has remained around 80 percent, while the shares in the bottom fifth and those in between have fallen, a Brookings Institution study in 2020 found.

Some of the decline in marriage is a side effect of positive trends in society. Modern appliances have made living alone easier than it used to be. Also, women are more likely to work and to hold higher-paying jobs than in 1950, so they don’t have to marry if they don’t want to. That’s especially true if their potential partners are men who are earning low wages.

Plus, I’m guessing that a lot of single women look at their married friends and say, “Is that what I really want?” Married women, even those who have jobs outside the home, do a disproportionate share of child care, meal preparation and housework. A study out of Sweden this year found that men who won the lottery were more likely to get married and less likely to get divorced, while women who won the lottery were more likely to get divorced in the short run.

Anyway, back to my theme. I’m proud of my son and his wonderful fiancée for committing themselves to each other for the rest of their lives. It is a leap of faith that I expect will be richly rewarded.

Elsewhere: Making People Care About Climate Change

Betting with real money on climate-related questions in an online prediction market causes people to become more concerned about climate change, according to a study by Moran Cerf and Sandra Matz of Columbia Business School and Malcolm MacIver of Northwestern University’s School of Engineering that was published in June in Nature Climate Change. In an accompanying policy brief, they wrote that even confirmed skeptics changed their minds about climate change when they won bets by correctly predicting climate events, such as the average concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere on a particular date.

Quote of the Day

“When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you’re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it. You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.”

— Steve Jobs, interview in Playboy (Feb. 1, 1985)

Peter Coy has covered business for more than 40 years. Email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter. @petercoy

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