Employment Uncertainty and Marital Disruption: Insights from Italy

Jacopo Mazzone, University of Florence
Niccolò Del Bravo, University of Florence

A large number of empirical studies investigated the relationship between employment uncertainty and marital disruption, but they did not found an univocal relationship. This study aims to assess the effects of employment uncertainty – here exemplified by labor market status and type of contract – on marital dissolution in Italy. We applied event history models to data stemming from the nationally representative 2009 Family and Social Subject survey, which contains detailed retrospective information on partnership and employment histories. The results are strongly gender-specific. Women having a remunerated job, even if not necessarily with a permanent contract, display elevated divorce risks. On the contrary, a secure employment represents for men a protection factor for the conjugal bond.


Background and Aim

Economic downturns have been shown toaffect union dissolution.  From a macro-level perspective, in fact, therelationship between employment uncertainty and marital disruption has afor-cyclical course. An increase of unemployment rate is indeed associated witha decrease of divorce rates (Hellerstein & Morrill 2011). At the microlevel, however, the relationship is much more elusive. First, economicinstability increases the financial and psychological stress of couples, whichmay lead to higher divorce rates. Second, the relative cost of divorce (i.e.,legal settlement, moving to a new household, costs of consumer durables) shouldrise during an economic crisis, thus lowering divorce rates (Fischer &Liefbroer 2006). Charles & Stephens (2004), for instance, illustrate thatdivorce risk increases with the loss of job, but this happens only when one ofthe two members of the couple gets fired; this does not happen in case of lossof job for other reasons.

In every marriage there are two marriages“his” and “hers” (Bernard 1972). The economic independence hypothesisanticipates that divorce rates increase when partners depend less on marriagefinancially, allowing spouses to exit unhappy marriages (e.g., Ruggles 1997;Sayer et al. 2011). This hypothesis has been generally used with respect towomen, as wives are likely to be more economically dependent on their husbands.Although it has received less attention, the economic independence hypothesissuggests that divorce is likewise affected by men’s expected economic performance(Killewald 2016).

Evidence for the economic independenceperspective for couples in is mixed. In addition, virtually all previousresearch has used unemployment as an indicator of economic performances,ignoring or downplaying other factors, like precarious work contracts (Vignoliand Ferro 2009; Cooke et al. 2013; van Damme & Kalmijn 2014). But nowadaysthe emerging class of “precariat” (Standing, 2011), a large group of peoplemoving in and out of low-paid “stopgap” jobs, is a phenomenon that can nolonger be ignored, also in divorce research.

This article addresses the micro-levelrelationship between employment uncertainty and marital disruption for Italy. Welook at the effects of different type of contracts (permanent or temporary) inaddition to the standard labor force status, and focus on both women and men todisentangle gender-specific effects.

In Italy represents an interestinglaboratory to study the relationship between employment uncertainty and divorce.Italy still maintains one of the lowest position in Europe with respect to thediffusion of divorce. Principal reasons for this state of affairs are thepersistence of the male bread-winner model and the slow and difficult processof secularization. Nonetheless, trend data illustrate a strong increase intotal divorce (and separation) rates over the last decades. Increasing levelsof marital dissolutions have been mirrored by the spread of flexible andtemporary contractual forms. This spread has been in Italy one of the fastestin Europe over the last decades. From 1993 to 2013, the share of temporaryemployment among dependent workers grew from 6% to 13% in Italy, whereas theEU-28 average slightly moved from 11% to 14% (OECD, 2016).

Analytical strategy

The table 1 presents the key factsunderlining our empirical strategy.


















Preliminary Results           

Table 2 presents our first results. Employmentuncertainty seems to be correlated to the legal separation risk, but its effectappears opposite for men and women.

Women having a remunerated job, evenwithout a permanent basis, are characterized by higher levels of divorce risks.This finding is in line with a classical interpretation based on theindependence hypothesis. Note that that we have had to rely on the observedorder of events (e.g., employment entry and separation). Such a strategy maylead to an upward bias in the effect of women’s employment on the risk ofdivorce if married women increase their involvement in the labor market inresponse to a decline in their satisfaction with marriage.

For men, having a greater employmentstability represents a protection factor for the conjugal bond. This finding isin line with a male breadwinner interpretation of Italian couples, in whichman''s income is the main pillar of the family. Precarious jobs or, worse,unemployment, might identify conditions of failure that generate a stressful atmosphereand destabilize the couple.

We conclude this initial phase of theanalysis by stressing that employment uncertainty affects the stability ofmarriage in a gender-specific manner. When men have no longer labor stability orwomen enter the labor market, marriages are less solid.


Presented in Session 1110: Families and Households