65 Pages Posted: 15 Nov 2011 Last revised: 20 Dec 2011
Date Written: December 20, 2011
American divorce rates rose from the 1950s to the 1970s, peaked around 1980, and have fallen ever since. The mean age at marriage also substantially increased after 1970. Using data from the Survey of Income and Program Participation and the 1979 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, I explore the extent to which the rise in age at marriage can explain the rapid decrease in divorce rates for cohorts marrying from 1980 to 2004. Three different empirical approaches all demonstrate that the increase in women's age at marriage can explain at least 60 percent of the decline in the hazard of divorce since 1980. Other (plausibly exogenous) factors, such as improvements in women's labor market opportunities and increased access to birth control, largely impacted divorce rates over this period by changing age at marriage. I further develop an integrated model of the marriage market to demonstrate that monotone decreases in the gains to marriage (due to the aforementioned exogenous changes) can produce both the increase in age at marriage and the rise and fall of divorce rates observed in the U.S. since 1950. Finally, I show that the recent changes in age at marriage and divorce are associated with more egalitarian marriages and decreased marital conflict. But the new patterns of family formation also imply a polarization in the lives of children born to more and less educated women.
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