We investigate the role of employment in enabling and constraining marriage for young men and women in Egypt, Jordan, and Tunisia. Survival analysis methods for age at marriage are applied to comparable labor market panel surveys from Egypt (2012), Jordan (2010), and Tunisia (2014), which include detailed labor market histories. For men, employment and especially high-quality employment are associated with more rapid transitions to marriage. For women, past—but not contemporaneous—employment statuses are associated with more rapid transitions to marriage. After addressing endogeneity using residual-inclusion methods for the case of public sector employment (a type of high-quality employment), we find that such employment significantly accelerates marriage for men in Egypt and women in Egypt and Tunisia. The potential of high-quality employment to accelerate marriage may make queuing in unemployment while seeking high-quality employment a worthwhile strategy.
The link between economic factors and marriage behavior has long been a concern in demography and studies of the life course (Baizán et al. 2002; Blossfeld et al. 2005; Juárez and Gayet 2014; Oppenheimer 1988, 2003; Oppenheimer et al. 1997). To understand marriage outcomes, scholars have used a marriage market framework, with search and matching among potential spouses in a setting characterized by incomplete information on spousal quality (Adachi 2003; Becker 1973, 1974; Grossbard-Shechlman 1995). Besides signaling future earning potential, employment can affect the timing of marriage by allowing individuals to contribute to the costs of marriage.
In this study, we examine the relationship between work and marriage in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), specifically in Egypt, Jordan, and Tunisia. Given the region’s dominant male breadwinner, female homemaker model, young men must signal their economic readiness for marriage (Hoodfar 1997). Recent declines in the ability to acquire high-quality employment, especially employment in the public sector, have severely tested young men’s ability to signal their economic readiness, making the transition to adulthood more protracted and uncertain (Assaad et al. 2010; Assaad and Krafft 2015a, b; Salehi-Isfahani and Egel 2010; Salem 2016a). This phenomenon of prolonged transitions to adulthood has been termed “waithood” (Dhillon et al. 2009; Kuhn 2012; Singerman 2007). Waithood has induced anxieties among youth and their families and created social and political concerns. The lack of decent employment for increasingly educated youth and the resulting protracted transition to adulthood are considered an important trigger for the Arab Spring revolutions (Arampatzi et al. 2018; Campante and Chor 2012; Devarajan and Ianchovichina 2018).
To date, limited rigorous empirical evidence is available as to how employment shapes the transition to marriage in MENA. We therefore investigate two key research questions: (1) how different labor market statuses affect marriage timing, and (2) whether queuing (waiting in unemployment for a good job) pays off as a strategy to accelerate marriage. We highlight how the links between the labor market and the marriage market differ by sex due to gender roles that mandate employment as a prerequisite to marriage for men but not women.
We make three contributions to understanding the link between work and marriage. First, we address the potential endogeneity of employment, specifically for public sector employment. Second, we explore the marriage timing tradeoffs between making a slower transition to employment in the hopes of getting higher-quality employment versus making a quicker transition into lower-quality employment. Third, we investigate the relative roles of signaling (indicating future standards of living) versus resource accumulation (saving toward marriage costs) effects of employment on marriage timing. This research thus contributes a number of insights about the interplay between labor market behavior and the marriage market.
MENA countries, more so than other regions, have maintained the archetypal structure of the transition to adulthood. In MENA, marriage is the sole socially acceptable route to adult roles, including independent living, sexual relations, and childbearing (El Feki 2013; Hoodfar 1997; Singerman and Ibrahim 2003). Although Egypt, Jordan, and Tunisia have much in common in terms of the centrality of marriage to the transition to adulthood, they have variation in key aspects of their economic context as well as different patterns of age at marriage. Comparing these countries can illustrate common relationships between work and marriage that span contexts with similar archetypal transitions as well as how these relationships can be context dependent. We selected these countries because of the availability of data on work and marriage. They do not represent all countries in the region, but they do represent different subregions across MENA, including the Arab west (Maghreb) and east (Mashreq). These three countries do not necessarily represent the Gulf states, which have higher incomes and different labor markets but similar norms around marriage.
Table 1 compares key features of the three countries, starting with the percentage of men and women married by (before) various ages. Marriage is almost universal for men and women in Egypt and for men in Jordan. A substantial fraction of men in Tunisia (14%) and women in Jordan (14%) and Tunisia (18%) do not marry by age 50. The median age at marriage is similar in Egypt and Jordan, at 27 for men and 21–22 for women, but is higher in Tunisia, at 33 for men and 27 for women.
Education has expanded rapidly in the MENA region. The average years of schooling increased substantially in all three countries, comparing the cohorts born in 1950–1954 with those born in 1980–1984, but the increase was more pronounced among women. Despite rising educational attainment, female labor force participation (employment plus unemployment as a percentage of the working-age population) is still very low. Female participation rates are 17% in Jordan, 23% in Egypt, and 25% in Tunisia (Table 1), compared with a world average of 49% (International Labour Organization 2017).
Historically, educated graduates were guaranteed employment in high-quality jobs in the public sector (Assaad 2014a; Devarajan and Ianchovichina 2018). As education expanded, this model became unsustainable. There was limited growth of high-quality employment (i.e., formal employment, with social insurance and/or a contract) in the private sector, which primarily provided low-quality, informal employment (Assaad et al. 2019a, b; World Bank 2013, 2014).
Rising educational attainment and deteriorating labor market opportunities led to some of the highest youth unemployment rates in the world. Male and female youth unemployment rates are very similar in Tunisia (34% to 37%), where unemployment durations are long (Assaad and Krafft 2016), but the female rate (50%) in Egypt is approximately five times the male rate (10%). Jordan falls between these two extremes (20% male and 43% female). These differences can be understood by thinking of unemployment as a strategic queuing behavior, where youth remain unemployed in hopes of obtaining public sector or private formal employment, which offer better wages and benefits as well as greater social prestige (Assaad 1997, 2014a; Barsoum 2015a; Groh et al. 2014). Young people strongly prefer public sector employment, followed by private formal sector employment, because of the better working conditions, pay, and benefits associated with such jobs (Barsoum 2015a, b). In Egypt, young men are less likely to end up in formal employment than in Jordan or Tunisia (see Table 1). The scarcity of formal employment for Egyptian men makes queuing a less appealing option for them. In Jordan and Tunisia, where the chances of obtaining formal employment are higher, men would be more willing to queue for these positions, thus raising their unemployment rates.
The work women undertake in all three countries is limited to activities that are considered appropriate for women in a conservative social setting. Public sector employment is the most reconcilable with other gender roles, and informal employment is considered inappropriate (Assaad and El-Hamidi 2009; Assaad et al. 2014; Assaad and Krafft 2015c). For women, employment is not a prerequisite for adulthood, but marriage is. As a result, their fallback position is to remain unemployed queueing for public sector employment or to leave the labor force altogether.
The challenging conditions of the school-to-work transition have contributed to public anxiety around the ability of young people to marry in a timely fashion (Salehi-Isfahani 2013; Salem 2014, 2015, 2016b; Singerman 2007). Economic factors are related to the delay in marriage on two fronts. First, the transition to work, with substantial unemployment or informal employment, is an obstacle because employment is (for men) a prerequisite to marriage. Second, even once people are working, accumulating the substantial resources required for marriage may further delay marriage (Singerman 2007).
The costs of marriage can be high, particularly in contexts such as Egypt and Tunisia (but not Jordan), where homeownership is the norm (Assaad et al. 2017a). If a groom in Egypt were to cover the full initial costs of marriage, it would take eight years of wages (Assaad and Krafft 2015a), compared with five years in Jordan (Assaad et al. 2017a). Men bear the largest share of the costs of marriage (Salem 2015; Singerman 2007), which may particularly delay their marriages and contribute to persistent spousal age gaps (Assaad and Krafft 2015a). The groom’s family as well as the bride and her family also contribute toward marriage costs, with prescribed purchases, such as the groom’s side securing housing and the bride’s side the kitchen appliances (Amin and Al-Bassusi 2004; Yount and Agree 2004). Thus, employment not only signals future standards of living (signaling) but is also necessary to purchase the assets required to marry (resource accumulation).
We draw on two key strands of theoretical literature on transitions to adulthood. First, the global life course literature provides a framework for understanding transitions into adult roles and how transitions vary by gender and background (Lloyd 2005; Mortimer and Shanahan 2003; Sommers 2012). Second, the economics of marriage literature frames marriage market behavior, including features such as assortative mating, uncertainty and information problems, and game theoretic behaviors (Assaad and Krafft 2015a, b; Becker 1973, 1974; Bergstrom and Bagnoli 1993; Smith 2006).
Across both developed and developing country contexts, the transition to adulthood has been evolving in response to changing economic, social, and demographic forces. The archetypal transition to adulthood proceeds through education, employment, residential independence, marriage, and childbearing (Juárez and Gayet 2014). Increasing time spent in school and increasingly insecure employment opportunities prolong transitions (Arnett et al. 2011; Blossfeld et al. 2005; Dhillon and Yousef 2009; Sommers 2012).
Marriage (or union formation), which is often linked with independent living, is a key stage in the transition. Countries display substantial heterogeneity in how age at marriage has shifted over time (Amato et al. 2008; Billari and Wilson 2001; Mensch 2005). This heterogeneity may be in part because marriage depends on the preceding transitions, particularly the school-to-work transition. Transitions to adulthood are gendered: men and women have distinct patterns for age at marriage around the globe, often linked with the speed and quality of transitions into employment (Baizán et al. 2002; Calvès 2016; Goldin 2006; Gutierrez-Domenech 2008; Jampaklay 2006; Juárez and Gayet 2014; Kalmijn 2011; Oppenheimer 2003; Oppenheimer et al. 1997).
A key framework linking employment to marriage timing is the idea of a marriage market in which individuals search and match over the set of potential spouses (Adachi 2003; Becker 1973, 1974; Grossbard-Shechlman 1995). Incomplete information about spousal quality presents challenges, so matches occur based on expected quality (Bergstrom and Bagnoli 1993). In this uncertain assortative mating process, timing of marriage (for men) is delayed until they enter stable careers (Oppenheimer 1988). Increases in employment instability can lead to reductions in marriage rates, as demonstrated in the United States (Oppenheimer 2003; Oppenheimer et al. 1997) and Europe (Gutierrez-Domenech 2008; Kalmijn 2011). Fewer studies have connected the timing of marriage to employment in the developing world (Antoine et al. 1995; Calvès 2016; Jampaklay 2006).
Because MENA marriages are the outcome of extensive negotiations across two families rather than simply the result of individual choices, it is useful to supplement the traditional search theoretic framework with a bargaining framework (Assaad and Krafft 2015b). The bride side’s bargaining power is greatest up front because of the unequal rights accorded to wives within marriage in countries that follow Sharia law as the basis for their family law (Assaad and Krafft 2015b). Gender equity within marriage varies by country, with Tunisia being relatively more equitable (Assaad et al. 2018a; Yount and Agree 2004). Divorce is uncommon and particularly damaging to women (El Feki 2013; Hoodfar 1997). Marriage is therefore a high-stakes endeavor, and the bride’s side tries to secure up front as much certainty about the spouse and future living conditions as possible (Assaad and Krafft 2015b). This theoretical frame points to a dual role for (higher-quality) employment in the marriage market. First, employment (and the future standard of living it implies, which we refer to as signaling) makes individuals more desirable marriage partners. Second, their employment (and current associated earnings) makes it possible to more rapidly secure prerequisite conditions (e.g., housing) for marriage, which we refer to as resource accumulation.
In MENA, evidence on employment and marriage is available primarily for the case of Egypt (Amin and Al-Bassusi 2004; Assaad et al. 2010; Assaad and Krafft 2015a; Salem 2016a), with a single study on Jordan (Gebel and Heyne 2016) and one on Iran (Salehi-Isfahani and Egel 2010). None of the studies addressed the potential endogeneity of employment in predicting age at marriage. There is the potential for a variety of sources—and directions—of endogeneity in the marriage and employment relationship. For example, individuals who have greater expectations for their standards of living at marriage may seek employment to help secure those standards. Those who have greater expectations may require more time to acquire resources prior to marriage, such that high expectations delay marriage. In this example, although employment accelerates marriage, the unobserved aspirations for living standards at marriage decelerate marriage, thus attenuating the estimated effect of employment on accelerating marriage. A similar argument can be made for higher-quality employment. Alternatively, it may be that individuals who have a marital prospect at hand (e.g., are engaged) seek employment sooner in order to accelerate marriage, such that this reverse causality overstates employment’s effect on accelerating marriage. Women may also quit employment in anticipation of marriage. Because both directions of bias are possible, we empirically test the direction of the bias.
For men, previous studies of MENA countries have found a clear association between employment (quality) and accelerated marriages (Assaad et al. 2010; Assaad and Krafft 2015a; Gebel and Heyne 2016; Salehi-Isfahani and Egel 2010). For women, the employment-marriage timing nexus is more ambiguous. In Egypt, there is no relationship between being employed and women’s age at marriage (Assaad and Krafft 2015a; Salem 2016a). However, some studies found that higher-quality employment accelerates women’s marriage (e.g., Assaad and Krafft 2015a), but others found no relationship (e.g., Salem 2016a). Working prior to marriage may be a strategy for generating the savings needed to cover the bride’s side marriage costs (Amin and Al-Bassusi 2004; Sieverding 2012). In Iran and Jordan, women’s employment is associated with later marriages (Gebel and Heyne 2016; Salehi-Isfahani and Egel 2010), which may be a case of reverse causality, wherein women who lack marriage prospects work for a time.
Building on this literature, we advance four hypotheses, which we test separately for each county and by sex.
Hypothesis 1 (H1): Employment accelerates marriage.
Employment signals spousal (future) value and aids resource accumulation. We expect that effects will be stronger for men than for women given the male breadwinner, female homemaker norm in the region.
Hypothesis 2 (H2): Higher-quality employment (public sector or private formal) accelerates marriage relative to lower-quality employment.
Higher-quality employment may signal a more desirable marriage partner or yield higher earnings, thus securing the material conditions for marriage. We expect that this will be true for both men and women but that only public sector employment (which is more reconcilable with marriage) will have unique effects for women, whereas private formal employment will also accelerate marriage for men given that it achieves similar income and job security/pension outcomes as public sector employment.
Hypothesis 3 (H3): The signaling of future standards of living implied by employment will be a stronger driver of marriage timing for men than the resource accumulation effects of employment, which will be stronger for women.
Marriage timing theory (Oppenheimer 1988) highlights both the signaling and resource accumulation channels of how employment affects the timing of marriage. For men, as breadwinners, signaling is likely to matter more; for women, resource accumulation will matter more because many leave employment at or before marriage. Resource accumulation will be particularly important in contexts with higher up-front marriage costs (i.e., Egypt and Tunisia).
Hypothesis 4 (H4): Queuing or searching for employment while unemployed, if it pays off in higher-quality employment (i.e., public sector employment), can be an effective strategy for accelerating marriage compared to accepting low-quality employment right away (i.e., private informal employment).
This hypothesis is based on the potential for strategic behavior (queuing or extended job search) in the face of employment uncertainty in the labor market in an attempt to maximize spousal quality. We expect this tradeoff to be particularly relevant for men because women who are unemployed or do not work will face less of a penalty on the marriage market.
Survival analysis methods can include both time-varying (such as whether an individual is employed) and time-invariant characteristics (such as birth region). To incorporate time-varying covariates, the data are structured such that an observation is a unique combination of an individual and a year of age (e.g., age 19) ending with the age at which an individual marries for the first time, or his/her current age, if still unmarried.1
The term θ(t) is a series of dummy variables for the years of age (baseline hazard).2 The estimated coefficients, β, when transformed as exp(β), can be interpreted as hazard ratios describing the relationship between a one-unit increase in a covariate and the hazard of getting married. The investigation of the tradeoffs in remaining unemployed to search for high-quality (specifically public sector) employment relies on the parameters of the complementary log-log model to create simulations of different trajectories across unemployment and different types of employment.
Endogeneity is likely to be a problem in estimating the effect of employment. We therefore need instruments for employment to account for potential endogeneity. We focus our endogeneity-corrected estimates on the impact of public sector employment on marriage timing not only because public sector employment is highly valued by youth (Barsoum 2015a; Boughzala 2018) but also because an instrument is available for public sector employment: namely, the proportion of adults in public sector employment in the local (governorate and urban/rural) labor market each year.
For the instrument to be valid, it must be exogenous and unrelated to marriage timing except through public sector employment after other variables are accounted for (exclusion restriction). We would not expect public sector employment opportunities to affect marriage timing except through an individuals’ own public sector employment. Public sector employment opportunities are centrally allocated through the budget process, which is a strong argument in favor of their exogeneity (Assaad 1997). Previous research has demonstrated that at least in Egypt, local public sector employment is not significantly related to other local social or economic conditions, such as GDP per capita or adult literacy (Krafft 2020). Even if the level of local public sector employment were correlated with other local conditions, the change in this level, which is the basis of our identification strategy, is unlikely to be.
We include governorate of birth and urban/rural dummy variables and their interactions as controls to capture any time-invariant aspects of localities. We use the information on the governorate of birth rather than that of current residence to avoid any possible endogeneity associated with the decision to migrate.3 Further, we control for time trends with year fixed effects. Thus, we are identifying off of variation across locations in the change in local public sector employment opportunities. We also include lagged (one year prior) local public sector employment opportunities to be able to account for both stock and flow dynamics in the labor market. Our instrument—the share of the local adult population with public sector employment—has substantial variation over time and across locations, which is critical for identification (Krafft 2020).
A challenge in applying instrumental variables methods is that both our endogenous regressor (public sector employment) and outcome of interest (age at marriage) are inherently nonlinear. Using a nonlinear first stage in two-stage least squares estimation is not recommended (Angrist and Pischke 2009). One solution is a three-stage procedure with a two-part first stage (Adams et al. 2009; Angrist and Pischke 2009; Wooldridge 2002). A nonlinear model (we use a probit) is used to estimate the endogenous time-varying binary outcome of interest, Dit (own public sector employment), as a function of covariates Xit and instruments Zit (local public sector employment). The predicted probability of own public sector employment, , can then be used as an instrument in an ordinary least squares (OLS) linear probability model for Dit with covariates Xit, which generates the predicted probability . If our outcome of interest were linear, we could then run OLS on that outcome with and Xit as covariates—essentially two-stage least squares but with the instruments being .
An additional complication arises from the fact that our outcome of interest is a duration: age at marriage. When the outcome is inherently nonlinear, using a control function approach—also referred to as two-stage residual inclusion (2SRI)—is recommended (Terza et al. 2008a; Wooldridge 2015). Simulations have shown that 2SRI performs better than alternatives when outcomes are nonlinear, including in survival analysis settings (Carlin and Solid 2014; Terza et al. 2008a, b). Instead of the predicted probability , the original outcome Dit is included along with the residual from the preceding stage, Dit. Thus, the approach we take combines the methods of three-stage instrumental variables, using the predicted values of our endogenous dummy variable of interest as instruments in the intermediate stage, and 2SRI. We therefore refer to it as three-stage residual inclusion (3SRI) (Krafft 2020). Using this method, the statistical significance of the residual embodies a test of the hypothesized endogeneity of public sector employment. Bootstrapped standard errors clustered at the primary sampling unit (PSU) level are used.
The study uses data from the Egypt Labor Market Panel Survey (ELMPS) 2012, the Jordan Labor Market Panel Survey (JLMPS) 2010, and Tunisia Labor Market Panel Survey (TLMPS) 2014 (Open Access Micro Data Initiative (OAMDI) 2013, 2016, 2018).4 The data include detailed labor market histories as well as information on the timing of first marriages. We use the labor market history data to estimate employment opportunities in a cell defined by governorate and urban/rural location and year.5 Governorates are the first level of administrative geography; our sample includes 22 governorates in Egypt, 12 in Jordan, and 24 in Tunisia. Our sample consists of individuals aged 15–59 at the time of each survey.6 This sample totals 24,432 individuals in Egypt, 12,330 individuals in Jordan, and 4,714 individuals in Tunisia.
Controls are included for a variety of individual characteristics that theory indicates are likely to affect the timing of marriage (Assaad and Krafft 2015a, b). Individuals’ time-varying labor market statuses are characterized as (1) public sector employment; (2) private sector formal wage work, with either a contract or social insurance coverage; (3) private informal wage work; (4) nonwage work (i.e., being self-employed, an employer, or an unpaid family worker); (5) unemployment; or (6) out of the labor force.7
Education is included as a time-varying covariate for whether an individual is currently enrolled in school, along with various completed levels (illiterate (reference), read and write, basic education, secondary education, or university education). Mother’s and father’s education are included categorically as time-invariant characteristics. Father’s employment status and occupation when the individual was age 15 (time-invariant) are included as important measures of socioeconomic status. Because few mothers worked, we control for whether the mother worked when the individual was age 15 (time-invariant) rather than for her type of work. We include the (time-invariant) number of brothers and sisters ever born to account for any resource competition. Time trends are captured with a series of time-varying, five-year period dummy variables (e.g., the year being 2000–2004). Region (of birth, time-invariant) is incorporated, along with urban/rural location at birth (in combination with region in Egypt, as is typical).
In the 3SRI models, public sector employment versus all other statuses is examined. For 3SRI estimation, the categorical regions are further broken down to be on the level (typically governorate and urban/rural)8 at which the instrument was estimated; controls are included for each time-varying year (rather than in five-year categories as before) to further ensure that the instrument is valid after the control variables are accounted for.
Correlates of Marriage Timing
In this section, we explore how employment is associated with age of marriage. Table 2 presents the discrete-time proportional hazards models, showing hazard ratios. Hazards greater than 1 indicate that an individual is more likely to marry at each age compared with the reference (baseline hazard) individual; hazards less than 1 indicate an individual is less likely to marry. For instance, in Egypt, the hazard ratio for males for public sector employment is 1.368; public sector employment is associated with a 37% higher hazard of marrying at each age, compared with the omitted category of private informal wage work. Men in Jordan and Tunisia also have a significantly higher hazard of marrying at each age if they have public sector employment. Private formal wage employment significantly increases the hazard of marriage for men in Egypt (by 19%) but not in Jordan or Tunisia (where the hazard ratio is similar to Egypt but insignificant). The relative rarity of private formal work in Egypt (see Table 1) may mean that it has a stronger signaling effect on the marriage market. Nonwage work is not significantly different from private informal work for men, but being unemployed and especially out of the labor force significantly reduces the hazard of marrying for men. Overall, for men, in terms of associations, there is evidence suggesting that employment accelerates marriage (H1) and that employment quality matters for marriage timing (H2).
For women, compared with the “default” of being out of the labor force, women in public sector wage work are significantly more likely to marry at each age in Egypt (by 12%), Tunisia (by 70%), and Jordan (8%, insignificant). For women, compared with being out of the labor force, all nonpublic types of work are associated with either an insignificant or a significant and lower hazard of marriage. This may be because women undertake these forms of work only when they need to help pay for marriage or have limited marriage prospects available. Thus, for women, the results in terms of employment being associated with accelerating marriage (H1) are mixed in part because the results confirm that the quality of employment matters (H2).
We tested an additional model that pooled men and women and then included interactions between sex and all covariates. We found significant differences in the relationship between covariates and marriage timing by sex in all countries, both overall and when looking specifically at the differences in the relationship between employment and marriage. Being unemployed or out of the labor force was associated with delayed marriage for men but not for women. Relative to informal employment, other types of employment were associated with faster marriage to a greater extent for women than men.
The hazard ratios of other covariates are as expected. For example, those in school tend to have a significantly lower hazard of marrying. Some parental characteristics are associated with a higher hazard of marriage—for example, having a mother who worked—potentially because of an additional family member with income accelerating saving for marriage. Yet other parental characteristics are associated with delays in marriage—for example, having a mother with higher education, likely because educated mothers typically denote a higher socioeconomic status and higher expectations for adult living. In all three countries, even after we control for other characteristics, there are strong cohort trends, displaying a rise and fall in the age at marriage for Egypt, along with rising but potentially stabilizing ages at marriage in Jordan and Tunisia.
Dynamics of Employment and Marriage Timing
In Table 3, we include both concurrent labor market status and lagged status (one year prior) to investigate whether signaling or resource accumulation drives the employment-marriage timing relationships that we see (H3). We interpret current labor market status, controlling for lagged status, as the effect of signaling the future or social value of a labor market status. We interpret lagged labor market status, controlling for current status, as the ability to accumulate resources toward marriage. Because labor market statuses are highly persistent, multicollinearity will inflate the standard errors. In Egypt and Jordan, the concurrent effect of higher-quality employment (i.e., in the public sector) is associated with earlier marriage for men. Having previously been employed does not show much quality differentiation. However, being unemployed or out of the labor force, both currently and in the past, reduces the hazard of marriage (for the latter, likely because of an inability to accumulate resources). In Tunisia, for men, results are insignificant, likely related to smaller sample size and multicollinearity.
For women, current work, especially informal wage work, is related to a lower hazard of marriage, but previously being employed enables marriage. This result demonstrates distinct signaling (current employment, which may even be a negative signal) versus resource accumulation effects (savings from past work accelerating marriage) for women (H3). This result also suggests reverse causality for women: women may work while seeking partners and accumulating resources, and then quit in advance of marrying.
Determinants of Marriage Timing Accounting for the Potential Endogeneity of Employment
A major concern with considering the impact of employment on marriage timing is the potential endogeneity of employment. We therefore estimate our 3SRI models with the local share of public sector employment among the adult population and its lag (one year prior) as instruments. Table 4 displays the probit marginal effects from the first stage of the 3SRI models. A percentage point increase in local public sector employment increases an individual’s probability of public sector employment 1.6 to 12.0 percentage points. The effects of the lagged local public sector variable tend to be negative,9 smaller in magnitude, and usually significant.
Table 5 presents the statistics from testing the first stage. The instrument is strong, with p values for the chi-square statistic less than .01 except for women in Jordan (p = .248). The F tests in the second stage are all large (the smallest F statistic, for females in Jordan, is 53), and all have p values less than .001.
For the 3SRI model, we present first a series of models (“restricted sample”) that compare public sector employment, as a dummy variable, with all other statuses, restricted to the same sample as is used for the 3SRI models (see Table 6). For men, the hazard ratios are higher than in the model presented in Table 2 because being unemployed and out of the labor force, which delay marriage, as well as other employment statuses are aggregated in the reference group. For women, the hazard ratios are generally similar to those in Table 2 given that not working does not have the same delaying effect on marriage as it does for men. These restricted sample models are the non-IV counterparts of the 3SRI model in Table 6.
After instrumenting, public sector employment significantly accelerates marriage for men in Egypt (hazard ratio of 10.702).10 The residual is less than 1 and is significant, indicating that the men who obtain public sector employment would, for unobservable reasons, otherwise marry later. The residual is essentially a test of endogeneity; public sector employment for men in Egypt is endogenous to marriage. Individuals who have higher aspirations for marriage may both seek public sector work and marry later, attenuating the estimated effect for public sector work when endogeneity is not accounted for. In Tunisia, the hazard ratio for public sector work is greater than 1 (2.171), and the residual is less than 1. Although neither is statistically significant, the results suggest a similar pattern to Egypt.
For men and women in Jordan, the hazard ratios for public sector work and the residual are insignificant. These results suggest that public sector work does not aid marriage in Jordan (H2), nor is it endogenous. Because marriage costs are lower in Jordan and public sector employment is more widely available across backgrounds (Assaad et al. 2017a; Assaad and Salemi 2019), such work may have both less of a resource accumulation effect and less of a spousal quality signaling effect than in the other two contexts.
For women in Egypt (8.235) and Tunisia (7.091), the hazard ratio on public sector work is greater than 1 and is substantially larger in the 3SRI models than the uncorrected models. The residual is less than 1, suggesting that the unobservable characteristics—potentially aspirations for living conditions or spousal quality—that predispose women toward public sector work also lead them to delay marriage. Such work may also make women more attractive on the marriage market given that women in Egypt and Tunisia are less likely to leave work at marriage when employed in the public sector (Assaad et al. 2017b).
Does Queuing for Public Sector Employment Pay Off in the Marriage Market?
In this section, we explore whether queuing for public sector employment by remaining unemployed longer pays off in the marriage market. Specifically, we use our models to simulate the median age at marriage for youth depending on how long they spend in unemployment and whether they obtain public sector employment.11 We use the predicted probabilities from the various models as the hazards to simulate a survival function and determine the median age at marriage.
In the uncorrected model, if the individual queues but does not obtain public sector employment and at some point gives up, we assume that a man gets private informal wage employment and that a woman remains out of the labor force, given that these are the fallback positions for men and women. If they entered different labor market statuses, that would change the tradeoffs. For the 3SRI model, public sector employment is compared with not obtaining such employment (including both working and nonworking statuses). The 3SRI model residual is set to 0 (the mean). The profiles we simulate spend between zero and six years unemployed, the latter being on the high end of queuing but not uncommon in Tunisia (Assaad and Krafft 2016), before they may or may not succeed in attaining public sector employment. The results using the uncorrected models are presented in Fig. 1, and the results using the 3SRI model are presented in Fig. 2. Figure 3 displays the results for the same sample and comparison as in the 3SRI model but without instrumenting (based on the restricted sample model shown in Table 6).
First, we examine immediately obtaining public sector employment versus obtaining informal employment (for men) or leaving the labor force (for women) after zero years unemployed (the first set of columns in each panel of Fig. 1). Men who immediately obtain public sector employment marry at a median age of 29 in Egypt and Tunisia and 28 in Jordan. Immediately entering informal employment raises the median age of marriage to 31 in Egypt and Tunisia and 29 in Jordan. Men can spend up to six years unemployed and still marry at the same age or earlier than those who immediately transition to informal wage employment as long as the queuing ends in public sector employment. For women, obtaining public sector employment immediately or after one to three years of unemployment (varying across countries) accelerates marriage. From a perspective of accelerating the transition to adulthood, queuing multiple years for public sector employment is a viable strategy (confirming H4), especially for men, as long as queuing actually results in public sector employment, which is by no means guaranteed. However, these results are without endogeneity corrections.
Results from the endogeneity-corrected 3SRI models in Figs. 2 and 3 (without the 3SRI correction) compare public sector employment with everything else, which likely exaggerates the effect of public sector employment. Figure 2 shows that queuing accelerates marriage for men and women in Egypt and Tunisia even if they spend up to four years (women) or six years (men) without public sector employment but eventually obtain such employment. In Jordan, where the 3SRI estimates were insignificant and near 1, there are no differences. Figure 3 shows a similar pattern but with smaller differences in age at marriage than in the 3SRI models for Egypt and Tunisia. Thus, the endogeneity-corrected estimates suggest that except in Jordan, queuing for public sector employment, even for as long as six years, may be a viable strategy for accelerating marriage as long as there is some assurance of obtaining such employment after queuing.
Discussion and Conclusions
Marriage in MENA is a critical stage in the life course, marking the completion of a young person’s transition to adulthood. Considerable public anxiety surrounds the delays in marriage that young people experienced in recent years. These delays can be partly attributed to the growing difficulty of young men to signal their economic readiness for marriage. Comparing our results across countries identifies commonalities in the marriage-employment relationship as well as differences across contexts.
Our findings for Egypt confirm previous research suggesting that (higher-quality) employment is associated with accelerated marriage for young men (H1 and H2) (Assaad et al. 2010; Gebel and Heyne 2016; Salehi-Isfahani and Egel 2010; Salem 2016a). Public sector employment significantly accelerates marriage in Egypt, and this effect is increased after correcting for endogeneity. A similar finding pertains for Jordan and Tunisia when there is no correction for endogeneity, but the effect of public sector employment becomes insignificant after instrumenting. However, the insignificant residuals indicate that the results that treat employment as exogenous may be valid. These results correcting for endogeneity are an important contribution to the literature, particularly in demonstrating a new approach for nonlinear modeling.
Although we could not correct for endogeneity for other labor market statuses, interesting differences are evident across countries. In Egypt, but not Jordan or Tunisia, private formal wage employment is associated with a higher hazard of marriage for men than informal employment, perhaps because private formal employment in Egypt remains a relatively elite status, unlike in Jordan or Tunisia. Thus, despite similar effects of employment on accelerating marriage for men, the effect of employment type depends on the local signaling power of employment statuses.
Previous research found that women in Jordan and Iran who worked were slower to marry (Gebel and Heyne 2016; Salehi-Isfahani and Egel 2010), but no relationship was found in Egypt (Salem 2016a). For women, our results suggest that employment is endogenous to marriage timing. Women who work may have higher expectations for married life or work while waiting for a potential spouse. Once endogeneity is taken into account, we find that public sector employment substantially increases the hazard of marriage for women in Egypt and Tunisia but not in Jordan (where instruments are underpowered and the results including lags suggest reverse causality). Marriage markets may place a premium on women’s public sector work, which is much more likely to continue after marriage than private sector work (Assaad et al. 2017b). Working in the public sector may also be an arena to meet men. Further research is necessary to disentangle these varying interpretations.
Results show important distinctions between the signaling versus resource accumulation impacts of work (H3). In Egypt and Jordan, women currently in private sector informal wage work transition to marriage at slower rates. However, previously working in informal wage employment accelerates marriage. These results suggest that rather than enhancing women’s value in the marriage market, informal wage employment allows women to marry earlier by helping them to save for marriage. Once they marry, women tend to quit such work (Assaad et al. 2017b), explaining the negative association between the current status and the timing of marriage.
The segmented labor market structure in MENA, with superior and preferred but limited public and private formal employment, is a driver of high youth unemployment rates (Assaad 1997, 2014a). Young people queue in unemployment attempting to obtain preferred, high-quality, formal employment rather than accept readily available informal employment. Previous work has not explored the role of the marriage market in these queuing dynamics; we examine whether it is worthwhile from a marriage timing perspective to remain unemployed longer if such queuing increases the probability of obtaining public sector employment. We find that queuing in unemployment for a number of years is a viable strategy to accelerate marriage if it yields public sector employment (H4)—a possible but not certain proposition. Marriage market payoffs to queuing may be contributing to persistent high youth unemployment rates. This dynamic interplay between the marriage and labor markets merits further research.
Although our research is an important advance in addressing endogeneity, the endogeneity-corrected results are only as good as the instrument. We identify the effect of public sector employment on the timing of marriage off of variation over time and place in the share of public sector employment in the adult population. We control for time-invariant geographic differences and overall time trends, but this approach assumes that variation over time in the local share of employment in the public sector is exogenous and affects marriage timing only through individuals’ public sector employment. Although decisions to, for example, hire additional teachers in a location are unlikely to be related to marriage timing trends, this assumption is not testable. The resulting estimates of hazard ratios tend to be large, which may be because a local average treatment effect (on those whose behavior is shifted by the instrument) is being estimated rather than an average treatment effect.
Implications for Policy and Future Research
The links between employment and marriage have considerable implications for the future trajectory of the transition to adulthood in MENA. Struggles to create good jobs in the face of rising education and aspirations will continue to constrain economic readiness for marriage, particularly for men, for whom employment is a prerequisite to marriage. Policies that encourage the creation of higher-quality employment, such as improving the business environment, may help youth transition to work and marriage (Krafft and Assaad 2015).
However, given labor market trends, how can we explain the reversal in the rise of the age at marriage in Egypt and the slowdown of the rise in Tunisia in recent years? The reversal in Egypt has been linked to housing policy that increased rental housing availability (Assaad and Krafft 2015a; Assaad et al. 2017a; Assaad and Ramadan 2008). The lower costs of marriage in Jordan (Assaad et al. 2017a) may be one of the reasons why the employment effects there were smaller. Policies that help lower marriage costs, such as housing finance or rental market reforms, may further facilitate transitions to adulthood and reduce the problem of “waithood” (Salehi-Isfahani and Dhillon 2008).
Another possibility is that the increasing scarcity of public sector employment causes changes in expectations about what it takes to be economically ready for marriage. As public sector employment retreats, women may increasingly engage in private informal wage employment to save for marriage but then leave work in anticipation of marriage (Assaad et al. 2017b). Marriage markets may ultimately update expectations to adjust to the changing economic situations of young men. This complex interaction between changing expectations in the marriage market and the objective economic situation of young people makes the prognosis of future trends highly uncertain and an important area for future research.
The authors acknowledge funding from the Economic Research Forum. The authors are grateful for the feedback of colleagues, particularly discussant Paul Schultz, at the Economics of Lifecourse Transitions workshop held by ERF in Cairo, and discussant Kathryn Yount, at the Economic Research Forum 23rd Annual Conference.
Both authors contributed to the study concept and design. Data harmonization, preparation, and analyses were performed by Caroline Krafft. The first draft of the manuscript was written by Caroline Krafft. Both authors contributed to subsequent versions of the manuscript. Both authors read and approved the final manuscript.
Data are publicly available from ERF at www.erfdataportal.com.
Compliance With Ethical Standards
Ethics and Consent
The authors report no ethical issues.
Conflict of Interest
The authors declare no conflicts of interest.
We focus on marriage rather than engagement because stages of the engagement process happen at different spacings, making these intermediate stages less comparable (Gebel and Heyne 2014). Engagements are commonly broken and are not the same durable transition to adulthood as marriage (Hoodfar 1997). Additionally, the couples’ living conditions are negotiated during the engagement process, and thus marriage timing depends in part on employment during engagement. We also test lagged employment status, which could be interpreted as employment status when engaged.
Because the hazards are very low at young and old ages, we combine the dummy variables for ages 15–18 and those for ages 35+ but do not drop any observations.
We tested dropping individuals who moved from their place of birth from our sample, and results were substantively similar. The exception was for women in Tunisia, for whom the result lost significance (possibly because of reduced sample size) but had the same direction.
We restrict our data to the 30 years preceding each survey. The Jordanian data do not distinguish between urban/rural areas of birth in the residential history data.
Because employment histories are available only starting at age 15, we start our analysis of marriage timing from age 15, excluding those (very few) individuals married prior to that age. Missing data also limits the size of the sample, particularly in Tunisia.
In the labor market history data, we can capture only market work, which is likely to underestimate work, particularly for women (Donahoe 1999; Langsten and Salem 2008). However, comparisons of labor market history and contemporaneous data show reasonably good data consistency, particularly for more persistent statuses, such as public sector work (Assaad et al. 2018b).
In Tunisia, because of small sample sizes, a number of neighboring governorates are combined.
They tend to be negative because if after contemporaneous local public sector employment opportunities are accounted for, the last period’s local public sector employment was higher, then the location is shedding public sector employment and thus is unlikely to hire a young person.
The larger size of the effects in the 3SRI model may be due to the fact that local average treatment effects (LATE), the effects for compliers, could be larger than the average treatment effects (ATE) for the sample as a whole (Angrist et al. 1996). In this case, and consistent with the monotonicity assumption, we expect that there will be compliers (individuals who would not have worked in the public sector otherwise induced to do so by increases in local public sector employment opportunities) but no defiers (individuals who would have otherwise worked in the public sector who do not do so as a result of greater local opportunities).
The simulations are run for a secondary graduate who was in school until age 18; who has secondary-educated parents; whose father was a self-employed professional; whose mother did not work; and who was located in Cairo for Egypt, Amman for Jordan, and Tunis for Tunisia. She or he has two brothers and two sisters and was born 35 years before the survey round. These characteristics create a baseline hazard from our models, over which we vary employment statuses. Different characteristics would lead to different ages at marriage but the same general structure of tradeoffs. For example, if we simulate a man born in rural Lower Egypt, instead of Greater Cairo, because the hazard ratio of rural Lower Egypt is greater than 1 (see Table 2), marriages will be systematically a year earlier for all profiles than shown in Fig. 1. A similar result of shifted ages pertains with other characteristics; they will be systematically shifted, with the direction depending on their hazard ratios.
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