In Friday's Best of the Web Today, James Taranto referenced a RAND report showing that men and women entering cohabiting relationships have widely differing expectations and attitudes. Among cohabiters aged 18 to 26, 13 percent more men than women lack "near-certainty" about the permanence of their relationship, and 15 percent more men than women reported they weren’t "totally committed" to their partners. However, Taranto notes that among both married men and women, equal (and markedly lower than cohabiting) numbers lacked "near-certainty" that their relationship was permanent.

Clearly, this gap in desires and expectations is problematic. Taranto says that "[i]f cohabitation is better suited to male sexuality … as the RAND study suggests, then one would expect the most attractive men--those with the widest options--to be most able to exercise their preference for the former." He mentions that this selection of the "best" men into cohabitation would bode ill for the well-being of marriage, as well.

I’ve already blogged for Marriage Generation about why I consider cohabitation the "margarine" of relationship arrangements. I wrote there from a generally theological and personal perspective. My personal essay aside, the data make it very clear that men benefit substantially from marriage, and that non-marriage (avoiding and delaying marriage, which may or may not involve living unmarried with a partner) is harmful to the U.S. economy.

The proofs for these two points (think "proof" in the sense that you used it in tenth grade geometry) exist in the form of a MARRI publication, "Non-Marriage Reduces U.S. Labor Participation: The Abandonment of Marriage Puts America at Risk of a Depression."

The short version of the explanation is this: unemployment among men across all sorts of employment classes (service-sector workers, sales workers, unskilled laborers, professionals) is lower among those who are married than among those who are single or cohabiting. This gap in unemployment between men of different marital states has persisted across 50 years of labor history, recessions included.

Furthermore, this isn't a matter of less-employed men being unable to get married (i.e., a so-called selection effect­); it's a matter of fewer men being trained through the institution of marriage to straighten up, fly right, and hang onto their jobs. Men who are already inclined to work less or who are only able to work less aren’t just shifting into cohabitation or singleness. Were that the case, as marriage declined and as less-employed men dropped out of the highly-employed group of married men, married unemployment would drop even further.

Finally, the difference in the labor habits of those men who are and those who aren't married, and our culture's shift away from early and lasting marriage, should be cause for concern--if we're at all concerned for the health of our economy. These two factors alone account for about half the fall-off in men's labor participation since the 1960s.

Marriage is a formative institution--to say nothing of the courtship process leading thereto. Speaking as a recently-married twenty-something, I can attest to the fact that there’s something about a girl ruling out the prospect of living together before he puts a ring on it that tends to weed out the slackers and commitment-phobes. And the guy who marries a girl, formally and legally, will become more productive as he works to provide for her and their children than he ever would have otherwise.

So perhaps RAND is right: Perhaps "cohabitation is better suited to male sexuality"--or, at least more appealing to short-term thinking and libido. But the data make clear that marriage is better suited to increasing male productivity; that is, to men developing professionally. Perhaps it's time we stop treating cohabitation and marriage as though their outcomes for the economy and personal financial well-being (and other matters) are six of one, a half-dozen of the other.