Let us start by considering boys first. A boy of eighteen years old (or younger) may encounter the following options: (a) get out of school/college and take up the work that is available to him; (b) continue education in the expectation of a better job in the future. (This expectation may become a reality depending on his ability to do well in studies and the availability of better jobs).

There are some additional choices for a girl, and these can create certain complications in her life. In addition to these two options, she can opt to become a mother and motherhood can change her work/education options. (A boy can become a father at 18 but that need not change his job options). The way motherhood affects a girl, depends on social conditions. It depends on private arrangements, and social/governmental support to take care of kids. I have seen girls in Indonesia back to work in distant cities within 4-5 months after their child delivery, since their mothers take care of grandchildren. In many developed countries, institutional support for childcare is widely available. Despite all these, unprepared motherhood at an early age is a burden in all societies and there are norms and parental advice to avoid it. Of course, it continues to be a serious issue among the poorer lot even in the developed world.

However, that is not the main complication I want to discuss. In addition to the two options encountered by boys, girls have another option too. That is to be a `lover’ who is being taken care of by a partner. A boy can also be a `lover’ but cannot expect to be taken care of by the spouse in most situations. What is the evidence to note that being a lover is a `rewarding’ job for a girl? One evidence that economists can cite is the fact that men show willingness to pay for sexual love in most circumstances, whereas cases wherein women pay for the same `service’ are fewer. (Whether this difference is due to biological reasons or social conditioning is an issue that I am not touching upon now.) Of course, here the reward is a one-time payment. Hence, some girls in certain contexts may opt for the work of providing `sexual love’ by accepting a monetary compensation as a one-time payment. They don’t want to be taken care of, and instead they would like to have an immediate monetary reward. However, only a small minority takes up such a work.

However, there are cases where payments or rewards for this `love’ is over a longer period of time. There are many girls who may take up a somewhat similar but a composite assignment by accepting this reward (which may include monetary and non-monetary, and tangible and intangible parts). They may have expectations on what they may get as reward in the long run (all these expectations may not materialize).

In summary, girls have one more occupational option – that is of providing `love’ (and associated services) in the expectation of a long-term reward from a partner. However, the reward that the girls expect to get for their `love’ may not be sustainable. Moreover, their provision of love can also put them into a difficult situation. (Becoming a mother and having to take care of children without much help is one of such difficulty). These challenges cannot be solved through the emotional connect or moral principles (expected from men and women). This is known to the society at large, and hence, it has put in place elaborate institutional arrangements that includes the arrangement of marriage. Marriage norms insist on transacting sexual love within a regulated/controlled framework.  These create claims for the girl (and her children who are the products of love) in the earnings and assets of the partner. Parents of girls provide additional incentives to the husband to keep the relationship intact (even after the point when love becomes less and less important). Dowry and related financial transactions are part of this incentive.

What is written so far is only a description of what is known to everyone, and that is not the focus of this essay. The key point is that girls face this third option (that of providing love in the expectation of a reward) not only when they are less educated. This option exists irrespective of the level of education or skills or the kind of jobs which are available to them. Most girls may encounter this choice, and that may determine their employment outcomes. Even a well-educated girl (or one who has demonstrated certain skills in the labour market) may encounter a partner who may be willing to share his earnings and assets with her for being in love, and this can be a better option in the expectation, compared to her current job by considering its (inevitable) dis-utilities. Hence, the option of not continuing in work (other than being in love with this person) could become acceptable to her. Given the fact that every kind of work has dis-utilities, there could be many girls who may find their current work or potentially available jobs unattractive compared to the offer of comfort (and rewards) of being a non-working spouse. This could be a universal phenomenon. We can see highly valued professional women stopping their work after getting married to highly successful men (or when their male partners become very successful in politics or other such occupations) in different parts of the world. Obviously, the manifestation of this phenomenon at a large scale depends on a number of contextual factors.

This phenomenon could be widespread when the society expects children (a product of love) to be taken care of by mothers and when there is a scarcity of alternative arrangements for this purpose. This may also happen when the reward from the partner is likely to be sustainable due to the prevailing importance of marriage or social aversion to divorce, as is the situation in India. On the other hand, if girls cannot expect much livelihood support from partners/husbands or care of children, say, as in the case of many lower-middle class girls in Indonesia or Brazil or Philippines, they are less likely to take up the unemployment option even if being in love (or married). This could be the situation in many parts of Africa (other than in its northern parts).  These are the two interesting equilibriums in this regard in developing societies.

What could be the general situation in the developed world? The trade-off for a middle class educated girl in, say, Western Europe, could be somewhat different, even though she may encounter similar options. Society does not expect all girls to be married or to have children. Dis-utilities associated with work may be relatively less severe. Being unmarried is not very disadvantageous for their normal personal or social lives. This is true even for those who are in love. Hence, they are less likely to get into a love relationship for the sake of long-term livelihood support from the partner. They are more likely to have children only if they expect to derive joy in taking care of them. The social acceptance of divorce may enable women and men to take care of their biological children even after divorce. A part of the cost of childcare is taken over by the state and hence the dependence of the female on the male partner for this purpose is less. For all these reasons, they may take up the unemployment option to be a full-time lover (and wife) of a male partner only if there is a greater advantage and not under normal circumstances.

We may think that society need not have to worry about these choices being made by people since these are based on personal preferences. However, that is not completely true. It is easy to understand this problem when we see it in comparison with the boy mentioned in the first sentence of this essay. It may be his personal choice to take up work now rather than continuing education and waiting for a better job tomorrow. When most boys take up the first option (foregoing the second), it is harmful and costly for the society as a whole. It reduces the skilled/educated people in the country, and can have economic, social and political implications. This is true even when girls take up the unemployment option due to the attraction of the `longer-term reward’ in love (marital) relationships. This can have serious negative impacts on their personal lives too, if the expectation of longer-term reward within love/marriage relationship does not materialize.

Addressing this issue may require changes in social norms along with those in institutional arrangements. There should be a social aversion to girls opting for unemployment due to the possible long-term reward in love/marriage relationships.