PSC Working Paper Series

Document Type

Working Paper

Date of this Version



Stevenson, Betsey, and Justin Wolfers. 2007. “Marriage and Divorce: Changes and their Driving Forces.” PSC Working Paper Series PSC 07-04.


We document key facts about marriage and divorce, comparing trends through the past 150 years and outcomes across demographic groups and countries. While divorce rates have risen over the past 150 years, they have been falling for the past quarter century. Marriage rates have also been falling, but more strikingly, the importance of marriage at different points in the life cycle has changed, reflecting rising age at first marriage, rising divorce followed by high remarriage rates, and a combination of increased longevity with a declining age gap between husbands and wives. Cohabitation has also become increasingly important, emerging as a widely used step on the path to marriage. Out-of-wedlock fertility has also risen, consistent with declining “shotgun marriages”. Compared with other countries, marriage maintains a central role in American life. We present evidence on some of the driving forces causing these changes in the marriage market: the rise of the birth control pill and women’s control over their own fertility; sharp changes in wage structure, including a rise in inequality and partial closing of the gender wage gap; dramatic changes in home production technologies; and the emergence of the internet as a new matching technology. We note that recent changes in family forms demand a reassessment of theories of the family and argue that consumption complementarities may be an increasingly important component of marriage. Finally, we discuss the welfare implications of these changes.


Abortion, Age, AIDS, American Community Survey, Bargaining power, Bargaining within marriage, Birth control, Census, Children, Cohabitation, Cohabiting couples, Contraception, Demography, Divorce, Divorce rates, Divorce trends, Economics of the family, Educational attainment, Employment, Family change, Family dissolution, Family formation, Family forms, Family life, Female employment, Female labor force participation, Fertility, First marriage, Gender, HIV, HIV/AIDS, Household production, Household structure, Internet dating, Labor force, Labor market, Labor supply, Laws, Life expectancy, Longevity, Marital aspirations, Marital behavior, Marital dissolution, Marital expectations, Marital formation, Marital history, Marital life cycle, Marriage, Marriage markets, Marriage trends, Modern family life, Mortality, Out-of-wedlock childbirth, Poverty, Premarital household formation, Premarital households, Race, Remarriage, Sexual activity, Sexual behaviors, Sexual exclusivity, Sexual initiation, Sexual partners, Sexually Transmitted Diseases, Sexually Transmitted Infections, Shotgun marriages, Statistics, STD, STI, Survey Data, Technological innovation, Timing of marriage, Unemployment, Unilateral divorce laws, United States, Unmarried partners, Wage gap, Wage inequality, Wage structure, Wages



Date Posted: 10 May 2007

This document has been peer reviewed.