This article proposes explanations for the transformation of American families over the past two centuries. I describe the impact on families of the rise of male wage labor beginning in the nineteenth century and the rise of female wage labor in the twentieth century. I then examine the effects of decline in wage labor opportunities for young men and women during the past four decades. I present new estimates of a precipitous decline in the relative income of young men and assess its implications for the decline for marriage. Finally, I discuss explanations for the deterioration of economic opportunity and speculate on the impact of technological change on the future of work and families.
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Martin et al. (2014) projected that assuming current marriage rates remain unchanged, 31 % of women and 35 % of men born in 1990 will not have married by age 40.
This analysis is confined to the United States because it is presently the only country with a suitable long-run data series. Similar processes, however, occurred in Northern Europe and now seem to be occurring in some East Asian and Latin American countries (Ruggles 2009; Stanfors and Goldscheider 2015).
The white space at the top—labeled “Not in the labor force”—identifies women without identifiable economic activities, whose effort was probably devoted mainly to housework and childcare. Housework and childcare clearly have economic value (Folbre and Nelson 2000), but do not enable economic independence.
Rising cohabitation can account for less than one-fifth of this overall change; in 2013, 44 % of households included no couple at all, either married or cohabiting (Flood et al. 2015).
Figures 12–14 are inflated to 2013 dollars using the Consumer Price Index Research Series (CPI-U-RS), which was designed to address concerns that the standard Consumer Price Index for all urban consumers (CPI-U) exaggerates inflation, especially in the late 1970s (Stewart and Reed 1999). If I had instead used CPI-U, the decline in young men’s wages would have been even greater (32 % for full-time workers and 48 % for all men aged 25–29). Both CPI series, however, may actually understate inflation as experienced by young adults in the 1970s and 1980s: young adults spent a high proportion of their income on rent; and before 1987, the CPI seriously understated rent inflation (Crone et al. 2006; Gordon and Van Goethem 2007). CPI-U-RS is available only for the period from 1978 to the present; to inflate the earlier years, I calculated the ratio of CPI-U-RS to CPI-U in 1978, and used it to adjust the CPI-U from 1940 to 1977.
Median generation length for men ranged from 27.8 in 1970 to 32.2 in 2013 (Ruggles et al. 2015). To estimate incomes before 1939, I assumed that annual changes in income for young men were proportional to annual changes in the mean income of the bottom 90 % of the population excluding capital gains, as estimated by Alvaredo et al. (2015). Accordingly, the early decades shown in Fig. 13 should be viewed as approximate.
The analysis used the open-source DECOMP software (Ruggles 1989).
The occupational classification is based on the first digit of the OCC1950 variable in IPUMS; the decomposition categories correspond to OCC1950 codes 0–99; 100–399; 400–499; 500–599; 600–699; and 700–970 (Ruggles et al. 2015).
I conducted a series of decompositions using a similar approach to assess the difference in the percentage married between black and white men. The results suggest that at least one-half of race differences in marriage in the 1960–2013 period can be ascribed to race differences in the economic characteristics of young men, lending further support to a structural interpretation (e.g., Wilson and Neckerman 1987).
Among the 36 % of working-age men who did not work for wages in 2013, 10 % were enrolled in school or college; 11 % were in institutions; 15 % were unemployed; 24 % were self-employed (down from 42 % in 1970); and 40 % were not in school, not employed, not institutionalized, and not looking for a job (Ruggles et al. 2015).
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This article is a revised version of my Presidential Address to the Population Association of America, delivered in San Diego on May 1, 2015. Funding for data preparation was provided by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (R01HD43392, R01HD047283, and R24HD41023). I also had a lot of help from my friends. I presented versions of this article at 10 population center seminars and conferences, and at every venue received feedback that reshaped my thinking. Several people were extraordinarily generous, providing detailed critiques of multiple drafts: Philip Cohen, Stephanie Coontz, Cathy Fitch, Katie Genadek, Claudia Goldin, Fran Goldscheider, Miriam King, Steven Mintz, Phyllis Moen, Lisa Norling, Gina Rumore, Carole Shammas, and Matt Sobek. Two anonymous Demography reviewers also provided wise advice. My greatest debt is to the data creators, curators, integrators, and disseminators of the Minnesota Population Center, without whom it would be impossible to describe long-run family change.
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Ruggles, S. Patriarchy, Power, and Pay: The Transformation of American Families, 1800–2015. Demography 52, 1797–1823 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13524-015-0440-z
- Wage labor
- Relative income