Marriage and divorce in twentieth century American cohorts

Demography. 1985 Feb;22(1):101-14.


Marital status life tables have provided a basis for describing the marriage, divorce, and mortality experience of U.S. cohorts born 1888-1950. In brief, marriage occurred earlier and became more universal from the earliest cohorts to those of the late 1930s. More recent cohorts show declines in the proportion ever marrying and increases in the mean age at marriage. Period data for 1980 and cumulative cohort data by age suggest the likelihood of a continuing retreat from first marriage. Divorce has been rising steadily, with the latest cohorts indicating that 46 percent of male marriages and 42 percent of female marriages will end in divorce. Period data for males in 1980 raise the possibility that levels of divorce may have reached a peak, but cumulative cohort data by age show no such pattern. The present results are consistent with the view that a fundamental change in the traditional concept of marriage is underway. Traditional marriage involved the husband providing the wife with economic support and protection in return for her companionship and maternal services. Strong social pressures urged men and women to marry, and made the coveted services married persons provided each other difficult to obtain elsewhere. Recent economic changes have undermined the social and economic forces that maintained the institution of marriage. The U.S. economy has grown to include a large service sector in its labor force, and that growth has produced a dramatic increase in female labor force opportunities (Oppenheimer, 1970). The resultant large scale participation of women in economic activity blurs the traditional division of labor by sex, and goes to the very heart of the traditional marriage "bargain." At the same time, economic changes have weakened family ties by encouraging lower fertility, stressing achieved as opposed to ascribed characteristics, and fostering geographical mobility (Goode, 1970). The "marital union" of the past may be giving way to the "marital partnership" of the future, which will accommodate informal as well as formal marriages, less dependence between spouses, greater egalitarianism, lower fertility, and higher levels of divorce.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Actuarial Analysis
  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Divorce / trends*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Marriage*
  • Middle Aged
  • United States