A Sudden Transition: The Rise of the Empty Nest for Older Women

Emily Merchant, University of Michigan
Brian Gratton, Arizona State University
Myron P. Gutmann, University of Michigan

At the beginning of the twentieth century, fewer than half of all mothers experienced all of their children leaving home. By the turn of the twenty-first, the emptying of the nest had become the dominant experience. This paper uses micro-level United States Census data for 1880-2000 to examine the factors associated with living arrangements for white mothers aged 50-69 and young adults aged 20-29. It finds that fewer mothers lived with their children at each census, but the proportion of young adults remaining at home declined only between 1940 and 1960. Multivariate analysis and contrasting trend analysis reveal that the increasing separation of older mothers and their children was shaped not only by long-term demographic and economic changes – including reductions in fertility and the decline of agriculture – but also by such period-specific factors as the expansion of higher education at mid-century and the restriction of immigration between 1921 and 1965.

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Presented in Session 147: Family and Household in Historical and Comparative Perspective