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A Sudden Transition: Household Changes for Middle Aged U.S. Women in the Twentieth Century

  • Emily Merchant


  • Brian Gratton
  • Myron Gutmann
Registered author(s):

    Between 1900 and 1990, the percentage of U.S. white women aged 40–69 living with a child of their own fell from 63 to 27 %, with three-fourths of that change occurring between 1940 and 1960. Historical census data from the Integrated Public Use Microdata Series and longitudinal data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics allow an historical and contemporary examination of co-residence patterns among these women. Analysis reveals three eras: a system of co-residence in the early twentieth century, a sudden transition toward separate households at mid century, and the maintenance of that separate household system thereafter. The scholarly literature features cultural, demographic, and economic explanations for the long-term decline in co-residence, but has given little attention to the rapid mid-century shift. Analysis of IPUMS data confirms the long-term effects of declines in mortality and fertility, and concomitant declines in the age of mothers at last birth, but also points to a sharp drop in the age of children at marriage in the mid-twentieth century. These factors raised the potential for the formation of separate households; this historical era was also a propitious one for separation: income gains for young workers were unprecedented, the labor force participation of married women rose, and immigration fell. Analysis of PSID data from 1968 to 2009 confirms the salience of children’s socioeconomic circumstances—particularly their marriage and employment prospects but also the increasing availability of higher education—in maintaining the separate household system. While the data analyzed allow only inferences about cultural factors, the resiliency of the new household system, even in periods of economic decline, suggests that it is now likely buttressed by strong normative views. Copyright Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

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    Article provided by Springer in its journal Population Research and Policy Review.

    Volume (Year): 31 (2012)
    Issue (Month): 5 (October)
    Pages: 703-726

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    Handle: RePEc:kap:poprpr:v:31:y:2012:i:5:p:703-726
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    1. Kathleen Mcgarry & Robert Schoeni, 2000. "Social security, economic growth, and the rise in elderly widows’ independence in the twentieth century," Demography, Springer, vol. 37(2), pages 221-236, May.
    2. Costa, Dora L., 1999. "A house of her own: old age assistance and the living arrangements of older nonmarried women," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 72(1), pages 39-59, April.
    3. Carlos Bethencourt & José-Víctor Ríos-Rull, 2009. "On The Living Arrangements Of Elderly Widows," International Economic Review, Department of Economics, University of Pennsylvania and Osaka University Institute of Social and Economic Research Association, vol. 50(3), pages 773-801, 08.
    4. Ellen Kramarow, 1995. "The elderly who live alone in the united states: Historical perspectives on household change," Demography, Springer, vol. 32(3), pages 335-352, August.
    5. Douglas Wolf & Beth Soldo, 1988. "Household composition choices of older unmarried women," Demography, Springer, vol. 25(3), pages 387-403, August.
    6. Robert Michael & Victor Fuchs & Sharon Scott, 1980. "changes in the propensity to live alone: 1950–1976," Demography, Springer, vol. 17(1), pages 39-56, February.
    7. Frances Goldscheider & Regina Bures, 2003. "The racial crossover in family complexity in the United States," Demography, Springer, vol. 40(3), pages 569-587, August.
    8. Frances Kobrin, 1976. "The fall in household size and the rise of the primary individual in the United States," Demography, Springer, vol. 13(1), pages 127-138, February.
    9. Paul Glick & Robert Parke, 1965. "New approaches in studying the life cycle of the family," Demography, Springer, vol. 2(1), pages 187-202, March.
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