If one would compare the average German family in 2020 to one fifty years ago, the differences would be striking. Modern families are more diverse and less stable, marriage and fertility rates have fallen, most mothers work at least part time, and gender role attitudes are increasingly egalitarian. In Germany, the female age at first marriage (first birth) increased from 23 (24) in 1971 to 32 (30) in 2020. The share of children born out of the wedlock increased over the same time period from 8 to 33%. While only 45% of all women aged 20 to 64 were part of the labor force in 1971, this share increased to 78% in 2019. In 1991, 28% of the German population agreed that it is the task of the husband to earn money, whereas the wife should take care of the home. By 2018, this share had fallen to 11%.
This dissertation contributes to our understanding of the evolution of the modern family in Germany, and is guided by the following questions: How does structural change in the labor market impact family formation and employment choices within couples? Why are certain aspects of the family -- like the division of unpaid work -- persistently traditional? How do institutions contribute to the change in family structure and gender role attitudes? Answering these questions is vital given the relevance the family has in shaping society, be it for economic growth, child outcomes or income inequality. These questions have become even more important during the Covid-19 pandemic, which has profound impacts on the care infrastructure and on the labor market more generally. The effects on families are still unclear.
There are two main theoretical frameworks in the economic literature to analyze the evolution of the modern family. The first strand is based on the maximization of family utility subject to resource constraints. It was pioneered by Gary Becker in his book “The Treatise of the Family”. In this framework, economic incentives for marriage arise from the gains from household specialization - one partner specializes in market work while the other specializes in home production -- thereby exploiting the comparative advantage of each spouse. Other gains from marriage stem from joint consumption or joint investments -- the prime example being children. Decreasing gains to household specialization can explain the employment and family structure patterns we see today. These could result, for example, from changes in the (relative) earnings potential of men and women, or from institutional reforms changing the costs of having children by improving the reconciliation of work and family life.
The second strand of the economic literature emphasizes the importance of social norms and beliefs and acknowledges that only part of the individual behavior can be explained by economic (monetary) incentives. In this framework, social norms and beliefs prescribe a certain form of behavior from which it is costly to deviate. Hence, they can significantly affect the observed behavior of women, including family formation patterns, the division of domestic work, and economic outcomes. But social norms and beliefs are not stagnant. They are shaped by institutions and policies and are transmitted within families, via peers, and neighborhoods. In particular, gender norms can explain behavior which does not align with economic incentives. One example is the male breadwinner norm, which incentivizes couples to avoid a situation in which the woman becomes the primary earner.
This dissertation provides new evidence on the drivers of the evolution toward the and draws on both theoretical frameworks. All studies use quasi-experimental methods and focus on one specific aspect of the important question of why families changed so substantially over the past decades in Germany.