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The Transformation of American Families essay

Patriarchy, Power, and Pay: The Transformation
of American Families, 1800–2015
Steven Ruggles1
Published online: 28 October 2015
# Population Association of America 2015
Abstract 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
Keywords Marriage . Family. Wage labor. Relative income
Before the nineteenth century, most families were organized according to patriarchal
tradition. Household heads owned and controlled the means of production, and their
wives and children were obliged to provide the unpaid labor needed to sustain family
enterprises. Masters of the household had a legal right to command the obedience of
their wives and children—as well as any servants or slaves—and to use corporal
punishment to correct disobedience (Coontz 2005; Cott 2009; Hartog 2000; Mintz
and Kellogg 1988; Shammas 2002; Siegel 1996; Stanley 2002). Over the past two
centuries, this patriarchal family system collapsed, as household heads lost control over
their sons, wives, and servants.
Demography (2015) 52:1797–1823
DOI 10.1007/s13524-015-0440-z
* Steven Ruggles
1 Minnesota Population Center, University of Minnesota, 50 Wiley Hall, Minneapolis,
MN 55455, USA
The waning of patriarchy was accompanied by a shift toward simpler and more
unstable families. Intergenerational coresidence, once a standard phase of the life
course, is now rare (Ruggles 1994, 2007). As shown in Fig. 1, in the mid-nineteenth
century, 74 % of persons aged 65 or older resided in multigenerational families.
Coresidence declined continuously from 1850 to 1990, reaching a low point of 18 %
before recovering slightly during the past few decades.1 After the Civil War, divorce
rates began to climb. Except for a temporary spike at the end of World War II, divorce
has increased almost continuously for 150 years. New estimates controlling for age
composition presented in Fig. 2 show that the standardized divorce rate leveled off only
briefly in the early 1980s and has climbed rapidly since (Kennedy and Ruggles 2014).
In the past half-century, the long-run trend toward atomization of families has
accelerated. A broad retreat from marriage began after 1960. It is likely that about
one-third of persons now in their early 20s will never marry, and this trend shows no
sign of slowing (Martin et al. 2014; Ruggles forthcoming).2 This is unprecedented; as
shown in Fig. 3, among all prior cohorts, at least 90 % of women married. Cohabitation
is growing rapidly, and cohabiting unions are more unstable than marriages (Kennedy
and Bumpass 2008; Kennedy and Ruggles 2015). Increasingly, however, young adults
are forgoing partners altogether. In 2014, 54 % of persons aged 25 to 29 had no
coresiding partner of any kind, up from 48 % in 2007 and about 23 % in 1970.3
1 Except where otherwise specified, statistics in this article derive from the Integrated Public Use Microdata
Series (Flood et al. 2015; Ruggles et al. 2015). In many cases, the analyses also appear in Ruggles
(forthcoming), which includes additional documentation of sources and methods.
1850 1870 1890 1910 1930 1950 1970 1990 2010
% Multigenerational
Fig. 1 Percentage of persons aged 65 or older residing in multigenerational families: United States,
1850–2013. Multigenerational families defined according to the IPUMS MULTGEN variable.
Source: Ruggles et al. (2015)
2 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.
3 The 2014 and 2007 estimates come from the Current Population Survey (CPS), adjusted to account for group
quarters (Flood et al. 2015). The 1970 estimate derives from the census microdata, adjusted to account for
cohabitation (Fitch et al. 2005).
1798 S. Ruggles
This article presents an interpretation of the transformation of American families
over the past two centuries. I argue that more than anything else, the changes in families
reflect changes in work. An upheaval in the economic organization of families had
profound implications for gender and generational relations. The economic revolution
was responsible for revolutions in family composition, divorce, and marriage.4
I begin with a broad overview of changes in family economies over the past 200
years. I then describe the rise of male wage labor beginning in the nineteenth century
and the rise of female wage labor in the twentieth century, and examine the implications
of those changes for family relations. The second half of this article explores a decline
in wage labor opportunities for young men and women during the past four decades. I
present new estimates of the precipitous decline in the relative income of young men
and assess its implications for the decline of 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.
Family Economies
For most of the nineteenth century, production was carried out by families. In 1800,
three-quarters of the workforce was engaged in agricultural work, and a majority of the
population lived on farms until 1850 (Ruggles et al. 2015; Weiss 1992). Farms could
not operate without family labor; all family members who were old enough contributed
to farm production. Among the one-quarter of the population who did not work on
farms at the beginning of the nineteenth century, most still made their living through the
family economy. Most nonfarm production was carried out by family businesses, with
occupations such as shopkeeper, shoemaker, tailor, physician, or tavern keeper. In most
such enterprises, the family resided on the same premises as the shop, and the whole
4 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).
1865 1885 1905 1925 1945 1965 1985 2005
Divorces per 1,000 Married Women
Fig. 2 Annual divorces per 1,000 married women, standardized by age: United States, 1867–2013. Source:
Ruggles (forthcoming)
Transformation of American Families, 1800–2015 1799
family worked for the business. Like farms, these family businesses were usually
handed down from generation to generation.
Figure 4 describes the major transformations in the economic organization of
married-couple households over the past two centuries.5 In the nineteenth century,
corporate families predominated. I define corporate families to include all married
couple households with self-employed heads, except for those in which the wife had
an occupation outside the family business. Most corporate families were farm families.
In addition to kin, corporate families often included farmhands, servants, slaves, and
sometimes apprentices. Corporate families were in the majority throughout the nineteenth century and remained important through the first half of the twentieth century.
Corporate families were replaced by male breadwinner families in the early twentieth
century. Male breadwinner families are defined as those in which the husband works for
wages or salary and the wife has no occupation listed in the census. By 1920, the number
of male-breadwinner families exceeded the number of corporate families, and this percentage continued to grow until World War II. This change was driven by expanding wage
labor opportunities for men. The male breadwinner category represented a majority of
marriages for just four decades—from 1920 to 1960—reaching a peak of 57 % in 1940.
Male breadwinner families were replaced by dual-earner families in the midtwentieth century. In the early decades of the twentieth century, the number of married
women working for wages began to increase, and the pace of change accelerated in the
middle decades of the century. Dual-earner families have now predominated for almost
a half-century. Over the past several decades, female-breadwinner families—shown in
5 This graph was inspired by a similar illustration that appears in Stanfors and Goldscheider (2015). The term
“Corporate Family Economy” was coined by Ryan (1981), and my characterization of change was informed
by Mintz (1998).
% Never-Married by Age 40–44
Year of Birth
Fig. 3 Percentage of women never married by age 40–44 by birth cohort: U.S. women born 1825–1994.
Source: Ruggles (forthcoming)
1800 S. Ruggles
the top right of Fig. 4—have emerged as a significant new form, and they now account
for one-tenth of marriages.
The Rise of Male Wage Labor
How to keep boys on the farm and induce them cheerfully to choose farming as
their occupation for life is a question of deep interest to many parents. The
stampede of young men from the country to cities and large towns is not an evil
which finds its limit in the domestic circles which they leave, but is one which
extends through society and makes its depressing influence felt everywhere. How
to check this evil is a question of great importance and is well worthy of
consideration. (Read 1884:848)
Corporate families predominated in the nineteenth century because before the
Industrial Revolution, people did not have many other options. The earliest data
showing the full male occupational distribution come from the 1850 census, when
the transformation of the economy as already well underway. As shown in Fig. 5, wage
labor jobs that paid enough to support a family were still scarce in 1850. At that time,
about two-thirds of men were self-employed farmers or proprietors, unpaid sons on
farms or in family businesses, or slaves. Another 15 % were unskilled workers, who
were mostly farmhands and were paid mainly in the form of room and board. Such
laborers usually did not get paid enough to get married. In 1850, the biggest groups of
skilled workers and operatives were miners and sailors. They were paid better than
farmhands, but most worked in places where there were few women available to marry.
Corporate family
Male breadwinner Dual earner
Female breadwinner
Fig. 4 Family economies of U.S. couples aged 18–64: United States, 1800–2010. Source: Ruggles (forthcoming)
Transformation of American Families, 1800–2015 1801
If a young man wanted to marry, his best prospect was still to inherit the family farm or
business. Accordingly, in most families, one child remained in the parental household
under the control of the patriarch, with the expectation of eventual succession.
As the century progressed, new high-paying opportunities arose in factories.
The number of factory jobs grew 600 % between 1850 and 1900, and there
were rapidly expanding opportunities in clerical, sales, and professional occupations (Lebergott 1984). The growth of well-paying wage labor jobs for men
undermined the economic underpinnings of patriarchal authority. As young men
took jobs off the farm, they moved away from home and out of the control of
the patriarch. Figure 6 compares the percentage of men in agriculture with the
1850 1870 1890 1910 1930 1950 1970 1990 2010
Farmer & other self-employed
Unpaid family work
Skilled & operatives
Unskilled wage
Professional &
& sales
Not in labor force
Fig. 5 Occupations of men aged 18–64: United States, 1850–2010. Source: Ruggles (forthcoming)
Multigenerational families
(persons aged 65+)
(male labor force)
Fig. 6 Agricultural employment and multigenerational families: United States, 1800–2010. Sources: Ruggles
et al. (2015) and Weiss (1992)
1802 S. Ruggles
percentage of elderly residing in multigenerational families. A generation after
agricultural employment began to decline, multigenerational coresidence followed suit.
The decline of multigenerational families occurred mainly because of increasing
wage labor opportunities for the young (Ruggles 2003, 2007). When young men could
obtain well-paying employment for wages, they no longer had as much incentive to
remain at home under the control of their fathers. As wage earners grew old, the
incentives for intergenerational coresidence declined further. Under the wage labor
system, patriarchs no longer needed the labor that their sons and daughters once
provided. Moreover, retired wage earners could no longer offer the younger generation
employment and eventual inheritance of the family farm or business.
A second major consequence of the rise of well-paying male jobs was a long-run
decline in marriage age, especially among men. Under the corporate family system,
young men had to wait until they either inherited a farm or built up sufficient resources
to establish an independent household. Under the wage labor system, men could achieve
high earnings early in life. As jobs paying good wages began to open up in the late
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, men could increasingly afford to marry at an
earlier age. Accordingly, between 1890 and 1960, median age at first marriage declined
3.6 years among men and 2.2 years among women (Ruggles forthcoming).
The rise of male-breadwinner families empowered young men, but it did not do
much for women. Even though first-wave feminists obtained the vote in 1920, in most
respects patriarchal gender norms remained firmly entrenched. In the mid-twentieth
century, women still could not get a bank account or a loan without their husband’s
signature, husbands had the right to determine where the family lived, and patriarchal
authority was still enforced through violence (Coontz 1992, 2005; May 1990).
In 1959, the New York Mirror—then the second-largest circulation newspaper in the
nation—featured man-in-the street interviews asking the question, “If a woman needs
it, should she be spanked?” All four of the men interviewed affirmed that the spanking
of wives was necessary to enforce discipline. Teddy Gallei, a parking lot attendant,
explained, “It teaches them who’s boss. A lot of women tend to forget this is a man’s
world.” William Davis, a toy factory owner, concurred: “Most of them have it coming
to them anyway. If they don’t it will remind them how well off they are . . . An ounce of
prevention is worth a pound of cure” (Aidala 1959).
The Rise of Female Wage Labor
Patriarchal control over women began to erode with the rise of female wage labor.
Wage labor opportunities for men were highly limited in the mid-nineteenth century,
but the opportunities for women were virtually nonexistent (Kessler-Harris 1982).
Figure 7 shows the occupational distribution for women since 1850.6 In the mid6 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
Transformation of American Families, 1800–2015 1803
nineteenth century, the great majority of working women were unpaid workers in
family enterprises, mostly farm wives and daughters and slaves. The next largest
category—unskilled workers—was almost entirely domestic servants in 1850. The best
jobs available for women were in factories, which employed 1.3 % of women. The tiny
professional and managerial category—accounting for less than 1 % of adult women in
the mid-nineteenth century—consisted almost entirely of teachers. The growth of
better-paying jobs for women began around 1900 and expanded rapidly after World
War II.
The long-run pattern of women’s employment shown in Fig. 7 is U-shaped, and the
low point of the U was at the peak period for male-breadwinner families (Goldin 1995).
Although the great majority of women engaged in economically productive work in the
nineteenth century, that economic role did not afford them independence or power. In
all but a tiny fraction of cases, nineteenth-century women worked in corporate families
under the direction and control of their husbands, fathers, or masters.
The twentieth-century rise of wage labor for women undermined the authority of husbands and fathers. New economic opportunities enabled some women
to delay or forgo marriage, and the availability of paid work also provided a
means of escape from bad marriages. From 1880 to 1990, there was a strong
spatiotemporal association between the availability of jobs for women and the
prevalence of divorce and separation (Ruggles 1997). In times and places where
women had no means of subsistence outside corporate families, they usually
remained married even if they were unhappy.
Figure 8 shows the wage labor participation rate for women aged 25–29, a group old
enough that few were still in school, but they were still of marrying age. By 1920, most
young single women had wage-paying jobs. The percentage of young married women
with such jobs grew gradually from 1900 until 1962 and then took off.
Before the 1950s, women generally left wage labor employment when they married,
partly because most employers barred married women from working for wages (Goldin
1850 1870 1890 1910 1930 1950 1970 1990 2010
Farmer & self-employed
Unpaid work in
family enterprise
Skilled & operatives
Unskilled wage work
& managerial
Clerical & sales
Not in labor force
Fig. 7 Occupations of women aged 18–64: United States, 1850–1910. Source: Ruggles (forthcoming)
1804 S. Ruggles
1991a). Despite the symbolic resonance of Rosie the Riveter, emergency work experience during World War II had little impact on employment after the war (Goldin
1991b). Most economic historians agree that the main reason for the sharp rise of
married women’s employment in the 1950s was the extraordinary demand for labor,
which created pressure to overcome institutional barriers to change. The economy
heated up just as the marriage boom reduced the supply of single women, so the rules
against hiring married women disappeared (Costa 2000; Cotter et al. 2001; Goldin
1990; Oppenheimer 1970).
As more and more married women began to work for wages, the balance of power
within marriages shifted. Many men and some women were alarmed by the rise of the dualearner family. A 1958 New York Mirror man-in-the-street interview asked, “Is Father
Losing his Place as Head of Family?” Charles Cogswell, a bank guard, responded:
Yes. Too many wives are getting independent. They go to work and begin feeling
they have more to say than the father. The old-fashioned way—when father was
THE boss—kept families happier. Not so many divorces, separations, and juvenile delinquents, then.
Simon Golos, an attorney, agreed that there was a “confusion of authority” and “a
gradual usurpation of power by the lady of the house.” Two women were also queried
by the Mirror. Harriett Weisman, a housewife, agreed with Cogswell and Golos, but felt
that the decline in the power of the father was a good thing because the wife “copes
with all the family problems.” Only Mrs. Lillian Ciarvino—a housewife and secretary—disagreed, saying that “a majority [of fathers] are still heads of their homes.”
Even Ciarvino, however, recognized that a fundamental change in gender relations was
underway, but she saw it as an issue of character: “The father who gives up his place as
head is either weak or doesn’t care to assume the responsibility” (Aidala 1958:27).
1860 1870 1880 1890 1900 1910 1920 1930 1940 1950 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000 2010
Unmarried women
Married women
All women
Fig. 8 Percentage of women aged 25–29 engaged in wage labor, by marital status: United States, 1860–2013.
Source: Ruggles (forthcoming)
Transformation of American Families, 1800–2015 1805
Attitudes toward married women’s work shifted rapidly during the 1970s. The evidence
on the timing of change suggests that the transformation of attitudes represented an
accommodation to the new reality of married women’s wage labor (Rinfduss et al.
1996). Figure 9 compares the percentage of married women who were in the labor force
with the percentage of married women who disagreed with the idea that women should
stay home. In 1970, when the series of attitudinal surveys began, 44 % of wives were
already in the workforce, but less than 20 % of wives thought that women should work
outside the home. Among working wives in 1970, 70 % thought that it would be “much
better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever and the woman takes care of the
home and family” (Westoff and Ryder n.d.). The great majority of working wives felt that
wives ought to stay at home. The cognitive dissonance between behavior and attitudes
was soon resolved, however. As married women flooded into the paid workforce, the
stigma that had surrounded married women’s participation in wage labor quickly disappeared. By 1980, most married women approved of married women’s work (Smith et al.
When behavior changes, attitudes adjust. As divorce became more common, for
example, it lost much of its stigma. This mechanism operates at the individual level; in
a study of divorce in the Detroit area between 1962 and 1977, Thornton (1985) found
that when people get divorced, they become much more accepting of divorce. Likewise, Axinn and Thornton (1993) found that young people’s cohabitation experience in
the Detroit Area Study had dramatic effects on their approval of cohabitation, and also
positively affected their mothers’ approval of cohabitation.
Changing attitudes are a crucial part of the process of family change. There is a feedback
loop: as family attitudes shift, they allow still more family change (Axinn and Thornton
1930 1940 1950 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000 2010
Percentage of wives disagreeing:
“It is much better for everyone
involved if the man is the
achiever outside the home and
the woman takes care of the
home and family.”
Percentage of wives
in labor force
Fig. 9 Labor force participation and attitudes toward labor force participation for married women under age
45: United States, 1930–2013. Sources: Ruggles et al. (2015), Flood et al. (2015), Westoff and Ryder (n.d.),
and Smith et al. (2013)
1806 S. Ruggles
2000). Changing attitudes can have especially powerful effects on family behavior through
their impact on institutional change (Bumpass 1990). Over the past 150 years, for example,
shifting attitudes permitted progressive loosening of once-formidable legal barriers to
divorce (Cherlin 2009; Hartog 2000; May 1980; Mintz 1998). Similarly, shifting attitudes
helped eliminate legal barriers to contraception and abortion in the 1960s and early 1970s
(May 2010). Women’s control of their own fertility led to a marked decline in unplanned
pregnancies, which in turn contributed to delayed marriage and childbearing, increased
educational attainment among women, and rising female labor force participation (Akerlof
et al. 1996; Bailey 2006; Goldin and Katz 2002; Myers 2012). Thus, attitudinal change
enables institutional change, which in turn affects family behavior. The massive long-run
changes in family behavior of the past 200 years could never have occurred without
fundamental changes in attitudes about family behavior.
We should not, however, view attitudinal change as the initial stimulus of family
change. For family change to occur, traditional values must be overcome. Attitudes are
ordinarily a barrier to change, not a cause of change: there must be a source of
exogenous pressure for people to reject the values with which they were raised.
Between 1800 and 2000, that pressure was exerted by an economic revolution. The
rise of wage labor, first among men and then among women, catalyzed family change
by disrupting traditional patterns of authority. When families began to change, attitudes
followed. The decline in multigenerational families occurred a generation after the rise
of wage labor for men. The shift in attitudes about married women’s work outside the
family occurred significantly after the rapid ascent of married women’s wage labor. In
both cases, rise of wage labor undercut the economic control of the patriarch, shifting
power from old to young and from men to women.7
Change in the U.S. Census reflected the transformation of family relations. In 1970,
patriarchy was embedded in the census: the form asked each respondent to identify the
household head, just as it had for the 18 previous censuses. The household head was
always the man, and the spouse of the head was always the wife. Thanks to the coordinated
efforts of feminist social scientists, by 1980 the household head was decapitated and
replaced by the gender-neutral “householder” concept (Presser 1998). Either husband or
wife could be listed as the householder, and either could be listed as the spouse of the
householder (Ruggles and Brower 2003). Initially, all but a few respondents maintained the
traditional order of enumeration even though the rules had changed; in 1980, just 4 % of
married householders were female. That percentage has grown steadily, and by 2013,
women represented 39 % of married householders (Ruggles et al. 2015).
The Decline of Marriage
The classification of family economies based on the economic activities of husbands
and wives—corporate, male breadwinner, and dual-earner—makes sense for the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, when the great majority of
households were headed by a married couple. In recent decades, however, the
7 Some theorists argue the opposite, maintaining that that both family change and married women’s employment resulted mainly from the rise of individualistic values (e.g., Lesthaeghe 1983, 2010; Van de Kaa 1987). I
discuss this interpretation in Ruggles (forthcoming).
Transformation of American Families, 1800–2015 1807
dominance of the married-couple household has receded, and it makes less and less
sense to classify family economies based on the economic activities of married couples.
Figure 10 shows the percentage of households without a married couple from 1850 to
2013. For the first 100 years, the percentage of households with no married couple
grew slowly, from 16 % in 1850 to 21 % in 1950. After 1960, young people began
delaying or forgoing marriage, sometimes cohabiting but more often residing alone or
with children but without a partner. Simultaneously, remarriage rates dropped, and the
growing divorced and widowed populations increasingly opted for solitary residence.
By 2012, the majority of households no longer included a married couple.8
Structural factors are responsible for the boom and bust of marriage. As shown in
Fig. 11, age at first marriage declined steadily from 1890 to 1930 as well-paid male
wage earners acquired the means to marry earlier in life. The Great Depression led to a
slight uptick in marriage age between 1930 and 1940. After World War II, median age
at marriage fell sharply to about 20 for women and 22 for men in 1960. During the past
half-century, age at first marriage has increased rapidly, and today Americans are
marrying at later ages than ever before. The marriage boom of the postwar period
was fueled by the rapid expansion of men’s wages, and the decline of young men’s
wages since 1975 is the main reason for the retreat from marriage in that period
(Carbone and Cahn 2014; Cherlin 2014; Oppenheimer 1988, 1994).
The three decades after World War II were a golden age of wage labor for young
men. The availability of labor was sharply constrained: immigration had been restricted
since 1924, and fertility levels during the Great Depression were the lowest that had
ever been recorded, meaning the new cohorts entering the labor force were small. The
“Lucky Few” entering the labor force after the war saw a spectacular rise in wages
(Carlson 2008). Figure 12 shows the median wages for 25- to 29-year-old men and
women in 2013 dollars. The top panel shows the medians for full-time wage and salary
workers; the lower panel is the same, but includes the entire population aged 25–29, not
8 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).
1850 1870 1890 1910 1930 1950 1970 1990 2010
Fig. 10 Percentage of households without a married couple: United States, 1850–2013. Source: Ruggles et al. (2015)
1808 S. Ruggles
just full-time wage earners. Median income for full-time employed young men more
than doubled in the postwar era, to a peak of $48,500 in 1973. After that peak, young
men’s wages declined 26 % to $36,000 in 2013. Wages for full-time working women
went up too, but not as rapidly. Women’s wages peaked in 2004, but by 2013, they
were lower than they were in 1973.9
Focusing on median wages for full-time wage and salary workers understates the
decline in the earning power of young men. More and more young men are working
part-time, and a growing percentage are not working at all. As a result, if we look at all
men aged 25–29 shown in the lower panel of Fig. 12—not just the full-time wage
earners—median wages declined 44 %, from a peak of $41,000 in 1973 to just $23,000
in 2013. Women do not register in the lower panel until 1968 because that was the first
year that more than one-half of 25- to 29-year-old women were in the wage labor force.
The median wages for all women age 25–29 peaked in 2001 and then fell 24 % over the
next 12 years.
Young men’s wages have been dropping rapidly for four decades. By comparison,
during the Great Depression, wages declined for just a few years before they started
heading back up. No such sustained decline in wages has previously occurred in the
United States. The sharp decline of young men’s wages provided strong incentives for
married women to enter the workforce even after opportunities for women stagnated in
9 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 (CPIU) 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.
1880 1890 1900 1910 1920 1930 1940 1950 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000 2010
Year of Marriage
Age at First Marriage
Fig. 11 Median age at first marriage, 1880–2013. Source: Ruggles (forthcoming)
Transformation of American Families, 1800–2015 1809
the mid-1970s: for many couples, two incomes were essential for economic survival
(Bianchi 1995; Oppenheimer 1994).
Easterlin (1966, 1987) argued that the salient threshold in marriage decisions is
not the absolute level of income but relative income, defined as the income of
young men relative to expectations they formed in their parental home. Figure 13
provides a simple measure of relative income: income of young men relative to the
income of men of about the same age a generation before. This number is
calculated as the ratio of median total income of all men aged 25–29 to the
median total income for the same age group 30 years earlier, when their fathers
1940 1950 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000 2010
a. Full-time wage and salary workers
1940 1950 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000 2010
Median Wages ($) Median Wages ($)
b. Entire population aged 25–29
Fig. 12 Median wages for persons aged 25–29, 1940–2013. Sources: Ruggles et al. (2015) and Flood et al.
1810 S. Ruggles
were approximately aged 25–29.10 The horizontal line at 100 in Fig. 13 shows the
point at which the older and younger generations made the same amount. In 1961,
young men were making four times what their fathers had made at about the same
age. For the past three decades, the younger generation has consistently done
worse than their fathers. Overall, generational relative income dropped a stunning
80 % since its peak in 1958.
We can also assess income of the young relative to the income of the affluent.
Figure 14 compares the median income of young men with the average income of the
top 1 % of the population. This measure peaked in 1970, when 25- to 29-year-old men
were making about 12 % as much as the average income of the nation’s elite; by 2013,
this statistic was down to just 2.6 %.
Both of these measures of relative income fit the timing of the marriage boom well.
In the 1950s and 1960s, when young men were doing exceptionally well in terms of
relative income, marriage age was exceptionally young. For the past four decades,
relative income has declined sharply, and marriage age has been rising at a record pace.
How much family change since 1960 might be explained by the drop in the relative
income of young men? To address that question, I carried out a demographic decomposition, following the Das Gupta (1978) framework.11 The dependent variable is the
percentage of 25- to 29-year-old men who were currently married, with spouse present,
between 1960 and 2013. This measure went from about 75 % of young men living with
a spouse in 1960 down to 24 % in 2013—a drop of 50 percentage points. This dramatic
change mainly reflects decisions to delay or forgo marriage, but it also is affected by the
rise of divorce and separation and the decline of remarriage.
10 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.
1945 1955 1965 1975 1985 1995 2005 2015
Median Income as a Percentage of
Median Income in Previous Generation
Fig. 13 Median income as a percentage of median income in the previous generation (30 years
previously): U.S. men aged 25–29, 1945–2013. Sources: Ruggles et al. (2015), Flood et al. (2015), and
Alvaredo et al. (2015)
11 The analysis used the open-source DECOMP software (Ruggles 1989).
Transformation of American Families, 1800–2015 1811
In the decomposition exercise, I analyzed four components of change, described in
Table 1. The left two columns show the percentage of men aged 25–29 who were
married in each category of each component. Foreign-born young men are excluded
because the relative income measure is not valid for them.
The first component is relative income, defined as the income of men aged 25–29
divided by the median income of men the same age 30 years earlier. I pooled the 1960
and 2013 data sets, calculated relative income as a percentile, and classified each case
into deciles of the combined data set. As shown in the left two columns of Table 1,
there was a close linear association between decile of relative income and marriage in
both periods, with more than four times as much marriage in the highest decile as in the
lowest. The right two columns describe the sea change in the distribution of relative
income during the past half-century.
The second component is occupation.12 In both periods, the men with craft occupations were most often married. These jobs—carpenters, machinists, mechanics,
painters, and plumbers—have declined dramatically since 1960. The occupational
groups least often married in both periods were the service workers and laborers, and
their frequency has almost doubled.
The third component is employment characteristics, combining information on class of
worker and employment status. Self-employed young men were disproportionately likely
to be married in both years, possibly because self-employment is still often a family
enterprise. These jobs were already uncommon for young men in 1960, and by 2013, they
were rare. Wage labor also declined substantially, and the percentage of young men not in
the labor force—who usually were not married even in 1960—increased dramatically.
The final component is educational attainment. The relationship of education to
marriage has shifted substantially (Torr 2011). In 1960, high school graduates were
12 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).
1940 1950 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000 2010
Median Income as a Percentage
of Median Income of the Top 1 %
Fig. 14 Median income as a percentage of the income of the top 1 %: U.S. men aged 25–29, 1940–2013.
Sources: Ruggles et al. (2015), Flood et al. (2015), and Alvaredo et al. (2015)
1812 S. Ruggles
more often married than any other group, and those with education beyond college
were the least married. By 2013, the relationship between educational attainment and
marriage was strong and positive.
The decomposition shows the amount of change in marriage between 1960 and
2013 that can be attributed to compositional changes in each component. It is based on
a cross-classification of the percentage married for each combination of the four
Table 1 Percentage currently married with spouse present and distribution of characteristics by selected
factors: U.S.-born men aged 25–29, 1960 and 2013
% Married Population Distribution
1960 2013 1960 2013
Relative Income
(percentiles of combined data sets)
0–9 18.9 7.0 3.9 13.0
10–19 35.1 11.0 2.1 14.2
20–29 45.5 16.8 2.7 11.8
30–39 47.9 21.4 2.2 12.6
40–49 51.6 29.1 2.1 14.6
50–59 59.4 35.6 4.1 13.1
60–69 68.4 38.5 9.8 11.9
70–79 76.4 39.8 21.2 5.8
80–89 82.8 43.0 24.4 2.0
90–99 87.6 42.5 27.5 1.1
Professional, technical 74.2 29.7 14.2 18.4
Get research paper samples and course-specific study resources under   homework for you course hero writing service – Manage rs, clerical 76.4 24.0 16.7 21.2
Sales 77.2 22.7 6.0 6.0
Crafts 79.8 35.2 23.9 14.0
Operatives 79.4 27.2 22.7 11.3
Service and laborers 66.2 18.5 13.8 21.5
No occupation for 5+ years 10.6 4.9 2.6 7.7
Employment Characteristics
Self-employed 83.3 32.7 6.6 3.0
Employed for wages 78.2 28.6 83.8 74.4
Unemployed 53.5 10.7 3.6 8.2
Not in the labor force 24.6 7.9 5.9 14.4
Less than high school 73.0 15.5 38.1 7.6
High school graduate 76.4 23.7 47.1 65.7
College graduate 73.9 26.7 8.9 21.1
Postgraduate 69.7 33.3 5.9 5.5
Total 74.5 24.2 100.0 100.0
Number of Men Aged 25–29 in Samples 46,708 74,095
Transformation of American Families, 1800–2015 1813
components in each census year, a matrix of 2,240 cells. For each component, the
analysis yields a composition effect representing how much of the change is attributable to changes in the distribution of that component, net of other components. The rate
effect is the change in marriage that is unaccounted for by changes in all four
components (Das Gupta 1978).
The results appear in Table 2. The total change in the crude percentage of 25- to 29-yearold men married was 50.3, reflecting the drop from 74.5 % married to 24.2 % married. The
compositional effects for each component indicate how much of the change would
disappear if the socioeconomic composition of the young adult population had not
changed. The right column expresses the effects of each component as a percentage of
total change.
The first component—relative income—is the important one. If that distribution is
held constant over time, 40.6 % of the change disappears. Each of the other components accounts for about 5 % of the change. Summing them, this simple analysis of four
economic components can account for 54 % of the overall decline in marriage.
This analysis omits many aspects of relative economic circumstances. For example,
we know that job insecurity has been increasing (Kalleberg 2011), but the decomposition cannot capture that. We have information about current income and occupation,
but nothing about the perceived future prospects of workers, which must be less bright
for young men than they were 50 years ago. The census cannot tell whether young
people are optimistic about their prospects or whether their jobs are insecure. Moreover,
the decomposition analysis also does not account for the stagnating prospects of
women during this period. Thus, the real impact of declining economic opportunity
is probably even bigger than this decomposition implies. The evidence therefore
suggests that Easterlin was broadly right about relative income: the decline of marriage
since 1960 can be largely accounted for by the deteriorating circumstances of young
men compared with the previous generation.13
13 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).
Table 2 Components of change in the percentage married: U.S.-born men aged 25–29, 1960–2013
Components of Change Index of Change
Total Change in Marriage 50.3 100.0
Effects of Compositional Factors
Relative income 20.4 40.6
Occupation 2.2 4.4
Employment characteristics 2.9 5.7
Education 1.6 3.2
Combined Effect of Factors 27.1 53.9
Rate Effect 23.2 46.1
1814 S. Ruggles
The Decline of Wage Labor
Easterlin (1978, 1987) argued that the decline in relative wages for young men resulted
from generational competition. Figure 15 recreates the key graph from his 1978
Presidential Address to the Population Association of America, showing the number
of men aged 15–29 as a percentage of the number of men aged 30–64. Easterlin argued
that young men’s job prospects depended above all on how many of them were
competing for those jobs. Thus, he argued, the huge boom in relative income after
World War II occurred because young men were in short supply. As the Baby Boomers
came of age, the number of young men entering the labor force exploded. With the
abundance of workers, the golden age of postwar labor abruptly ended.
Easterlin’s 1978 address came just after the peak of his graph. He could see that
generational competition was going to drop just as quickly as it had risen. Accordingly,
he predicted that a second golden age for young men’s employment was just around the
corner. By 1984, he argued, wages would be up, relative income would recover,
marriage age would decline sharply, and there would be a new baby boom.
As it turned out, the second golden age did not materialize. Despite the smaller
cohorts entering the job market after 1978, men’s wages continued to decline. One
factor was doubtless the mass entry of married women into the labor force, which partly
compensated for the smaller size of the new cohorts. Political change also affected
youth opportunities. Ronald Reagan was elected President in 1980, and America
shifted to the right. The fading of labor unions, decline in the minimum wage,
globalization, outsourcing, and stagnation of educational attainment all contributed to
the dramatic decline of wages for young men entering the labor force and the long
stagnation of wages for young women (Massey 1996; Piketty 2014; Stiglitz 2012; Weil
2014; Goldin and Katz 2010).
1920 1930 1940 1950 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000 2010
Number of Men Aged 15–29 as a Percentage
of the Number of Men Aged 30–64
Fig. 15 Number of men age 15 to 29 as a percentage of the number of men age 30–64. Sources: Ruggles et al.
(2015) and Flood et al. (2015)
Transformation of American Families, 1800–2015 1815
The largest source of decline of economic opportunity for young people, especially
over the past two decades and in future decades, may be the automation of both
manufacturing and services made possible by new technologies. The world’s computing capacity is doubling every 18 months (Hilbert and López 2011). Because of
innovations in artificial intelligence and sensing technology, robots are becoming
increasingly flexible and easier to train, and their cost is dropping rapidly (Brynjolfsson
and McAfee 2014). New technologies have eliminated millions of jobs over the past
several decades, and they are on the verge of eliminating many more (Frey and Osborne
From the late eighteenth century to the late twentieth century, technological innovation created more jobs than it destroyed. Indeed, the rise of wage labor—the driving
force of family change—was a direct consequence of technological innovation. When
Henry Ford introduced the moving automobile assembly line in 1914, it doubled
productivity (Ford and Crowther 1922). The assembly line threw a few carriage makers
out of work as people shifted to cars, but overall employment surged. With prices
declining steadily, car sales exploded. Employment at Ford’s Detroit area plants went
from 14,000 in 1914 to 100,000 by 1926 (Ford and Crowther 1922; Segal 2005). There
were also hundreds of thousands of new jobs in automobile sales and service stations.
This is a perfect example of creative destruction, and similar processes occurred again
and again over the course of more than a century.
Today, mechanization seldom adds more jobs than it eliminates. Manufacturing
employment in the United States peaked in 1979 and declined 37 % over the next four
decades (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2015); during the same period, manufacturing
output more than doubled (Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System 2015).
These trends are not confined to the United States. Owing to productivity improvements, employment in manufacturing is falling in most manufacturing countries, and
worldwide manufacturing employment is probably declining (Levinson 2015).
The rise of intelligent machines is also eliminating service jobs. Travel agents,
insurance agents, parking lot attendants, warehouse workers, and checkout clerks are
being replaced by machines. Within the next few decades, driving will be automated
(IEEE 2014). This will eliminate some 7 million working-class jobs—from taxi drivers
to truck drivers—employing about 5 % of the nation’s workforce. Frey and Osborne
(2013) estimated that about one-half of the U.S. workforce is employed in jobs that are
at high risk of automation within the next decade or two, and another one-fifth have a
moderate risk of automation. They judged that only about one-third of jobs are
reasonably safe. Eventually, perhaps, just a few percent of the population may be
sufficient to produce all the goods and services society needs.
Figure 16 shows the percentage of men and women aged 18–64 who were employed
for wages since 1800, with extrapolations into the future. Male wage work went up for
170 years, from 13 % in 1800 to a peak of 75 % in 1970. For the past four decades, the
percentage has declined, to 64 % by 2013.14 This decline is unprecedented. Suppose that
14 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).
1816 S. Ruggles
current trends were to continue. The dashed line for men in Fig. 16 is simply a linear
extrapolation of the current trend, which has been roughly the same for four decades. If
the decline of male wage employment were to continue at the same pace over the next
four decades, only 44 % working-age men would have wage jobs by 2050.
Among women, wage labor peaked in 2000. So far, the decline in wage labor has
been slower for women than for men. Because male wage work is declining so rapidly,
female wage employment will almost certainly exceed that of men within a few years.
This is partly because young women entering the labor force are increasingly better
educated than are young men (Goldin et al. 2006). In the long run, however, the
disappearance of jobs will affect women as well as men, and women’s employment will
likely follow the same trajectory. If current trends continue, however, only 56 % of
working-age women will work for wages by 2050.
For centuries, observers have been making dystopian predictions that technological
innovation would create massive unemployment and inequality, predictions that proved
to be false or at least premature (Mokyr et al. 2015). Is this time different? The past four
decades of decline in the relative income of the young might be only a temporary
setback. Easterlin could yet prove prescient: dramatic fertility decline across much of
the globe is creating very small cohorts, which might finally improve the prospects of
young workers. Perhaps some new technological innovation, as yet unimagined, will
increase rather than reduce the need for labor. It is equally possible, however, that the
opportunities are not coming back, and that we are witnessing the beginning of the end
of the era of wage labor.
Wage Labor and Families
For thousands of years, corporate families provided the means of subsistence for most
people. Then, for about 130 years, wage labor opportunities grew rapidly, first among
1800 1830 1860 1890 1920 1950 1980 2010 2040
Fig. 16 The rise and fall of wage labor: Percentage of persons aged 18–64 engaged in wage and salary work,
by sex: 1800–2050. Source: Ruggles et al. (2015)
Transformation of American Families, 1800–2015 1817
men and then among women. The tectonic shifts in the structure of the economy since
the early nineteenth century transformed family relations. The transition from corporate
families to male breadwinner families was a consequence of the rise of male wage labor
in the Industrial Revolution. The transition from male breadwinner families to dualearner families reflects the massive increase in wage labor among married women
following World War II. The decline of corporate families led to a profound upheaval of
generational relations as family patriarchs lost control over their wage-earning sons.
The decline of male-breadwinner families led to an equally profound upheaval of
gender relations as men lost control over their wage-earning wives and daughters.
The two great transformations of family economies—from corporate to male breadwinner and from male breadwinner to dual earner—undermined the economic logic of
patriarchal authority.
The dramatic retreat from marriage over the past half-century could never have
occurred without the loss of patriarchal control and the shift in attitudes that accompanied it. But the proximate cause of the retreat from marriage since 1975 is a different
structural change: the massive decline of relative earnings and falloff of wage labor
participation among young men, combined with the long stagnation in earnings among
young women.
With growing inequality, families are facing diverging destinies (McLanahan 2004).
A minority of young people are faring well in the new economy, and young people with
resources are continuing to form marital and cohabiting unions. Among the collegeeducated with good jobs, the impact of family change is muted. Marriage is still
feasible; marital instability is declining; and cohabitation and single parenthood can
be managed without hardship. For much of the population, however, the outlook is
grim. Almost one-fifth of young adults live in poverty, more than double the percentage
in 1973 (Ruggles et al. 2015). More than 10 % of young earners have their wages
garnished because of debt, often for child support (Arnold and Kiel 2014). Many who
have jobs are underemployed, taking unskilled and part-time jobs even if they have
good qualifications. Among young people who lack resources, families are difficult to
form or sustain: fewer and fewer young adults are marrying, and those who do are at
increasing risk of divorce. For people without secure jobs that provide a living wage,
cohabitating unions are highly unstable. Whether cohabiting or not, most unmarried
mothers of infants are in poverty (Amato et al. 2014; Carbone and Cahn 2014; Cherlin
2014; Flood et al. 2015).
Despite these challenges, few would choose to return to the families of the past.
Patriarchy has receded; today’s families are far more humane and egalitarian than
anything that came before. Corporal punishment of wives is universally condemned,
and wife-beating is illegal in every state. Child-beating is still legal in the United States,
but even in Texas, it is no longer acceptable to punish a child with a switch (Zinser
2014). Women are no longer legally subordinate to their husbands. Wives can work for
wages, they can keep their earnings, and they no longer need their husband’s permission to open a checking account or sign a contract. There is growing tolerance of new
family forms, to the point where same-sex marriage is now legal throughout the United
States. Time-use data show that families are becoming more and more egalitarian with
respect to housework and childcare (Goldscheider et al. 2015).
If the era of ever-expanding wage labor is truly drawing to a close, that will create
new challenges for families, but it will also create new opportunities. For the last
1818 S. Ruggles
10,000 years, most of humanity has been forced to work long hours in repetitive and
backbreaking toil just to earn basic subsistence. We are on the verge of being able to
make everything we need, including all kinds of things unimagined by previous
generations, without that kind of tedious and grueling drudgery—indeed, with hardly
any work at all. Our silicon servants will have the potential to provide everyone with
food, shelter, and all other necessities, freeing us to pursue our dreams and passions.
In 1930, John Maynard Keynes wrote an essay on “The Economic Possibilities for
our Grandchildren.” He predicted that the combination of technological innovation and
capital accumulation will eventually solve the problem of material needs. Keynes
argued that “the economic problem may be solved, or be at least within sight of
solution, within a hundred years” (Keynes 1930:96). Eighty-five years after this
prediction, I believe we are already within sight of solving the economic problem.
We now must address what Keynes saw as the real problem: how “to live wisely and
agreeably and well” (Keynes 1930:97).
To make families stronger, reduce family instability, enable young people to form
marital or cohabiting unions, and eliminate child poverty, we must figure out how to
share the bounty of the machines. Our biggest challenge is not how to produce wealth
but how to distribute it: how to get money into the hands of people—especially young
people—so that they can buy all those goods and services that the robots can produce
with so little human effort.
Acknowledgments 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
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