AUSTRALIA: Degrees offer wealth and marriage

Marriage in Australia is increasingly becoming the province of university graduates, a new study has found. In the space of a decade, an education divide has opened between graduates, who are more likely to be married and well-off, and those with no post-school qualifications who are likely to be single and poor.

The study, by a Monash University researcher, Dr Genevieve Heard, has revealed a remarkable change in rates of marriage over the past 10 years: the more educated people are, the more likely they are to be married - which is the reverse of the situation in the 1990s. Among women aged 30-34, more than 60% of those with degrees are married compared with only 53% of women who discontinued their studies after school.

Similarly, men with degrees are most likely to be married or living with a partner, while those who did not go on to further study are least likely. Among men aged 40-44, one in three with no post-school qualification lives alone - double the proportion of those with a degree.

Heard, a member of Monash's centre for population and urban research, used Bureau of Statistics data to compare marriage rates and income levels among Australian men and women with and without degrees over the past decade. She says there are fewer low income than high income men who are married and fewer low income men than high income men with partners.

"We are witnessing the redistribution of marriage; increasingly, married Australians are concentrated among those with higher earning potential," Heard says in a report of the research published in the centre's journal, People and Place.

The pattern points to a disturbing phenomenon that is already evident in America: access to the "means of family formation" is increasingly dependent on the economic resources for both sexes, Heard writes. A growing number of commentators have expressed alarm at the "polarisation of partnering patterns by socioeconomic status".

"It is tempting to explain away these trends in terms of the continuing de-institutionalisation of marriage, by which is meant the weakening of the social expectation that partnerships will take the form of traditional marriage," she says. "This phenomenon is common to many western countries: the UN states that 'formal marriage is receding everywhere'. Yet further disaggregation of these trend data by educational attainment and by income suggest that socio-economic factors are at play, complicating the broad-brush picture of marriage 'receding everywhere'."

With the increased take-up of education and paid work by women in the post-war era, Heard says some observers considered it self-evident that greater female economic independence would reduce marriage rates because highly educated women had more choices regarding marriage, motherhood and work.

"The greater the investment, the greater the financial incentive to favour work," she says. "Commentators often assume that more highly educated women acquire a less traditional orientation, place less emphasis on family, and as a result are less likely to form partnerships. This expectation particularly applies to marriage, as the most binding of commitments to family."

Yet in Australia this assumption has changed from true to false within a decade. In 1996, women with post-school qualifications were indeed less likely to have a partner than those without. By 2006, this was no longer the case and women with post-school qualifications were more likely to be married, or in a de facto relationship, than those without.

"In the US, V.K. Oppenheimer has pointed to the growing importance of two incomes for men and women who aspire to a middle-class lifestyle. 'Collaborative relationships' - whereby both partners contribute to the household income - are not only advantageous but essential," Heard says.

"In Australia, the high house prices of recent years render such concerns equally valid. Putting aside all the non-economic attractions of intimate relationships, educated men and women may be formalising and maintaining partnerships because the realisation of their middle class aspirations depends on it. Meanwhile, such aspirations may be out of the reach of many men and women without post-school qualifications."