In 1800, most American families were strictly patriarchal. Men deployed the women, youth, children, and, in some instances, the apprentices, servants, and slaves of the household on behalf of the family business. They virtually owned those lives. “Over the past two centuries,” however, “this patriarchal family system collapsed, as household heads lost control over their sons, wives, and servants.”
So writes the eminent historical demographer Steven Ruggles in his 2015 presidential address to the Population Association of America. (Presidential addresses provide opportunities for academics to think big.) He describes this change and then explains it as largely the result of fluctuations in young men’s wages over the past two centuries. Ruggles goes on to claim that in the twenty-first century the American family is not just changing but is unraveling, again as a result of what has happened to young men’s wages.
Ruggles’ is not the only explanation for the collapse of the patriarchal system (see below), but it is well-documented from the massive volumes of census data that he has archived as head of the Minnesota Population Center.
The first driver of family change, Ruggles argues, was the arrival in the nineteenth century of well-paying non-farm jobs, particularly in manufacturing. These jobs allowed young men to leave their fathers’ farms and their fathers’ control. In addition, it allowed them to marry sooner now that they did not have to wait for their fathers to age out or die. Furthermore, there was less occasion for the elderly to share a household with children and grandchildren. Thus, American families shifted from what Ruggles calls the “corporate” form–basically operating as an economic enterprise on a farm or in an artisanal shop–toward the “male breadwinner” family. In this emerging family form, which reached its apex in the mid-twentieth century, a man earns a wage outside the home which is high enough to support children and a wife who has no formal job.
In the graph below, Ruggles estimates how American couples, aged 18 to 64, divided among those two types of families and the two types that were to follow. Corporate family couples dropped from about 90 percent of the total in 1800 to about 30 percent in 1940, giving way largely to male breadwinner couples. The transition from the corporate to breadwinner resulted from young men’s economic liberation; it was the initial step in the patriarchal collapse.
The next big family change again followed from economic developments: jobs for women. A surging economy created a demand for workers that even waves of immigrants could not satisfy and generated new kinds of jobs–clerical and service–well-suited to women of the day. Between 1860 and 1920, the percentage of unmarried women aged 25-29 who worked for pay rose from about 30 to about 70. And between 1900 and 2000, the percentage of married women in those ages who worked for pay rose from about 5 to about 65. This social revolution liberated women from their fathers and from their husbands. The “dual-earner” couple became the most common form (see figure above) and even “female breadwinner” marriages appeared. Patriarchy had collapsed.
This is one account. The respected economic historian Carole Shammas published a book in 2002 on “household governance.” Her formulation, put simply, is the same as Ruggles’: In two centuries, traditional patriarchy gave way as male heads of household lost their grip on children, wives, and other household members. But Shammas’s explanation emphasizes cultural and institutional changes, particularly a host of legal innovations between 1840 and 1880 that undermined patriarchal authority, innovations such as compulsory public education for children, easier divorce laws for women, more rights for apprentices and servants, and authorized interventions into the family by benevolent societies and governments. This account does not contradict Ruggles’ but is much less driven by material factors.
As Ruggles looks at the current period and prospects for the future, he describes and foresees even more drastic changes in family life. Americans increasingly postpone marriage–in 2013 men married, on average, at the age of 29–and many Americans substitute cohabitation for marriage. Divorce and separation rates have climbed for those with less than a college education. Why?
“The decline of young men’s wages since 1975 is the main reason for the retreat from marriage,” Ruggles states. Median wages, in constant dollars, for all men aged 25 to 29 have dropped by roughly 40 percent since the 1970s. Ruggles calculates that from World War II to the 1970s the median income of young men was two to four times that of men in their fathers’ generation. No more. Since the mid-1980s, the median income of young men has been less than that of the previous generation. All this means fewer young men have the income to get and to stay married. In our era, of course, young women also bring income to marriage. But Ruggles’ calculations suggest that they too are starting to experience wage stagnation.
The projections for marriage as we knew it are bleak because the prospects for revived wages are bleak. The reason for flagging wages, Ruggles argues, is automation and computerization displacing workers in a political context which directs the productivity gains away from labor.
Ruggles is well aware that forecasting is a risky endeavor. He quotes a presidential address to same association which in 1978 predicted a 1950s-like boom in the wages of young men. The opposite happened, of course. Social science is not predictive. But we can learn what to watch for from social science history. Family structures have responded, Ruggles argues, to the income prospects of young men. Given those prospects today, he concludes, the future for the family is not bright.