The May-December Relationship Since 1850: Age Homogamy in the U.S.

Joseph Ferrie, Northwestern University
Karen Rolf, University of Nebraska

The discrepancy between the ages of husbands and wives in the U.S. has fallen continuously throughout the twentieth century: husbands were nearly five years older than their spouses in 1900, but were just over two years older in 2000. Though this pattern was noted more than twenty years ago, we trace this evolution back into the second half of the nineteenth century. We find that the gap between husbands and wives’ ages actually rose from 1850 until 1880, before it began its twentieth century decline. We explore this previously unknown increase in age heterogamy, assessing the role of the Civil War, the changing role of women in the economy, and the westward expansion of the U.S. Though all played a role, the last was most important. We also explore the impact of age heterogamy wives and their children.

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Presented in Session 47: Family Change in Historical Perspective