‘Young, male and aimless’: Employment woes delay marriages in India

ITHACA, N.Y. – New research finds economic changes are forcing adaptations in traditional Indian marriage practices – making men wait longer and sometimes pay to tie the knot.

Alaka Malwade Basu, visiting scholar in sociology at Cornell University, analyzed data from the Indian National Family Health Survey (NFHS), and found factors like unemployment are driving changes – but not enough for a modernizing overhaul to this deeply traditional institution.

“A still-popular joint family system means that sons do not have to leave home and establish an independent life upon marriage, and marriage expenses are borne almost entirely by the bride’s family in most parts of the country,” Basu said. “Yet there is this connection between male unemployment and delayed marriage.”

The statistical connection prompted Basu and co-author Sneha Kumar of the University of Texas, Austin, to explore trends in the “marriage market” in India – the match or mismatch between available brides and grooms, and gaps in the demand for and supply of each.

Researchers split eligible bachelors into three groups: those without much education or decent jobs; those with education but no employment; and those “fortunate enough,” Basu said, “to have a good education as well as a good job.” 

Dividing the pool of potential grooms into these groups emphasized the importance of employment for men seeking marriage. It turns out that brides’ families are no longer impressed by education alone; they want a groom to be gainfully employed, as well.

“Some men, the ones without decent or any jobs, especially when they are not very well educated, have a hard time getting married,” Basu said. “And so, we have men in this category either paying the families of girls – the practice of ‘bride price’ that exists in some other parts of the world – or else postponing marriage to when they find a job and can be more assertive in the marriage market. This second group makes up the young men one sees registering for more and more educational qualifications and/or loitering on the streets with little to do.”

These findings point to the strength of cultural institutions in India, especially those related to marriage, Basu said: “These cultural institutions are adapting to economic change, but they are not facing any serious overhaul. Unlike in other parts of the world, there is no sign yet of widespread cohabitation or extramarital childbearing, or permanent non-marriage.” 

Without jobs that can be lost or wives and children who could suffer, young, unmarried, unemployed men are poised to cause or be recruited to cause social and political trouble, Basu said.

On the other hand, she said, “young women getting more educated and marrying later may yet turn out to be the harbingers of the modernization and social change in the country that seems to be otherwise slow in coming.”

The study published in the November 2022 issue of Population Studies: A Journal of Demography.

For additional information, see this Cornell Chronicle story.

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