When looking for a job, some people have a goal that is especially important to them – making as much money as possible. Suppose you found that one particular group of people generally ranked that goal as more important than another group did. How would you interpret that finding?
Social scientists writing journal articles typically start with a prediction – about, for example, how much different groups value a high pay over other aspects of a potential job. Regardless of what they actually find, they are supposed to discuss different possible meanings of their results. When it comes to studies comparing married and single people, though, too often that professional standard gets tossed. It is instead replaced (probably without awareness) by the heuristic that whatever married people do is the right and noble thing.
In the study in question, the author analyzed responses to a question in the General Social Survey, which is a survey of American households conducted nearly every year. Participants are shown a list of five job features and asked, “Which one thing on this list would you most prefer in a job?” Then they are asked which thing is next most important, and so on.
Here are the five options:
The author was interested solely in the value that different groups placed on high income, so her analyses focused on how people rated that option, relative to the other options. She found that generally (averaging across all of the groups), people rated high income somewhere between their second and third choice among the five choices.
The key finding was the one she predicted: currently married people valued high income more than always-single people did. This could not be explained by differences in whether the married people were more likely to have children. Parenting mattered, but even when parenting status was controlled for statistically, married people still valued maximizing their pay more than single people did. In fact, the difference between married and single people in that preference was even greater than the difference between people with and without children. (Divorced and widowed people did not differ from always-single people in their valuing of high income when differences in parenting were accounted for.)
In the survey, men valued high income more than women did. Again, though, the difference between men and women was smaller than the difference between currently-married and always-single people.
So how does the author interpret her finding that married people (both men and women) value high income more than single people do? Here’s an excerpt from the “Conclusion” section of the paper:
“If married men and women feel more strongly about pay and are less content with their financial circumstances, they are likely to be more alert to opportunities to enhance their incomes. As part of this more general orientation, they may be more motivated to perform their jobs well in the hope of a greater reward. They may also feel greater organizational commitment.”
Let me summarize: If married people value making money more than single people do, it is all good.
There are lots of studies of the potential risks of focusing on extrinsic factors such as money, as compared to intrinsic ones such as the meaningfulness of the work, but none of that research gets a nod in this article.
Imagine if the results had been the reverse, and the single people valued money more? How many nanoseconds would it take for social scientists and the press to lunge to the conclusion that single people are materialistic? I wonder, too, in this hypothetical reversal, if we would hear about the supposedly narrow lives led by single people, as compared to the married people who want more time to devote to other interests, perhaps involving giving to others?
The closest the author comes to suggesting a bit of materialism on the part of married people is when she says this:
“These results are consistent with the argument that marriage increases the value that individuals place on outcomes that pay enables them to attain. Married people are likely to assign greater importance to material well-being for themselves and their families. The competition for power at home may also be more salient for married individuals. Earnings are a useful means to both ends.”
My argument is not that people should be criticized for valuing high pay. It is instead that it is important to be even-handed – especially if you are a scholar.
Single people, by the way, do value meaningful work. That has been suggested not just in the study I just described, which was subject to all of the interpretive messes of comparing people of different marital statuses at one point in time (you can never figure out causality that way), but also in a long-term study. As I discussed elsewhere, the beginnings of singles’ valuing of meaningful work can be traced as far back as high school.
Woman with money image available from Shutterstock.
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Last reviewed: 30 Apr 2013