Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

The dramatic expansion in the 'empty nest' stage of life

By Claude Fischer

An old joke: A priest, a minister, and a rabbi are debating the question, “When does life begin?” The priest says, “At conception, of course!” The minister says, “At birth!” The rabbi says, “When the last kid goes to college and the dog dies!

One of the major – but rarely appreciated – changes in American life over the last few generations has been the great expansion of the period in life we have come to call “empty nest.” For all the attention to the delay of marriage and the rise in divorce — important developments in American family life to be sure — empty-nesting has been one of the most extensive developments.

In the current historical moment, however, the expansion of the empty nest stage appears to be stalling or reversing.

More Empty Nests

Over the course of the 20th century, more Americans lived more of their lives with only their spouses, in a home from which the children had left. Michael Hout and I calculated (see Ch. 4 of this) that between 1900 and 2000, the percentage of Americans aged 45 to 64 who lived as a solo couple increased from about 10 percent to about 33 percent. The empty nest became more common for the middle-aged than living in a nuclear family (just parents and children). Among those 65 and older, the percentage of empty nesters rose from about 20 to about 45 percent between 1900 and 2000. (The percentage of the elderly who lived in a three-generation household dropped from 45 to about 15 percent.)

A recent paper by Brian Gratton and Myron Gutman shows the pattern yet more dramatically, by focusing on only older, married men. In the graph below which I constructed from their table 1, the blue line shows the rise in the proportion of married men living only with their wives. The red line is the percentage of married men living with their children (as well as wives or others). And the green line is the residual – the percentage in institutions, boarding houses, etc.

Living arrangements of married men

Cruising on Empty

Some research has shown that Americans in empty nests feel better, particularly about their marriages,  than comparable Americans with children still at home. (I stress Americans, since the patterns are probably different in other, notably in non-western cultures.) For example, a recent study followed about 100 women who had graduated Mills College around 1960 into the late 1990s. The researchers found women who had recently had their last child leave home reported greater marital happiness, particularly, it appears, because they now enjoyed more time with their husbands. The authors quote one woman: ‘‘Twenty years ago, we were in the battle of the children . . . today . . . [we] can enjoy one another for who we are.’’ (Another illustrative study is here (pdf).)

Explaining the Change

What accounts for the dramatic expansion of the “empty nest” stage? One critical factor is the increasing life spans of Americans. People – especially, men – have to live longer for couples to have any significant time living in an empty nest. Another is the declining birth rate. Although Americans over the century delayed having a first child, fewer had more than two or three children. This means that many fewer parents enter their later years with a teenager still in the home.

Beyond these basic demographic factors, scholars debate what else may be involved in the expansion of the empty nest stage. In particular, why had Americans by the end of the 20th century largely turned away from living in three-generation households as was so common at the start of the century? How come grandma and grandpa as a couple — or even as widow or widower — now rarely live with the children and the grandchildren?

One school of thought suggests that there was a cultural shift away from family loyalty and toward valuing individual autonomy and privacy – that American cultural tastes changed. Another school of thought argues that Americans’ tastes did not change, that most Americans always valued living in separate households. What happened, they contend, is that as incomes grew over most of the century – for both young adults who could now move out and for their parents (including their Social Security) –  more Americans could live on their own, either as singles or as couples. The debate continues, but the weight of the evidence leans in the direction of the second explanation, greater resources. (See, for example, the Gratton-Gutman paper; also Made in America, p. 144).


Now, it looks like the empty nest trend has stalled or reversed. The Census Bureau (pdf, slide 18) recently reported that the number of 25-to-34-year olds living with their parents increased by 8 percent between 2008 and 2010. In a Pew survey (pdf) conducted in October 2009, 11% of the respondents aged 25 to 34 said that they had moved back in with their parents because of the recession.

The graph below uses some longer-term data. (It’s not precisely what we need to make the point, but close.) The left side shows that the number of family households — defined as households that have at least two related people (spouses; mother and child; etc.) — in the U.S. steadily climbed since 1983. The right side shows fluctuations in the number of 25-to-34-year-olds living with their parents. Two points are noteworthy: One is the uptick in recent years in the number of 25-to-34-year-olds living with their parents – not just since 2008, but for most of the 2000s. Another is the downturn during the late 1990s, during the economic boom. This pattern is consistent with interpreting the co-residence changes as the result of economic changes.

Current Population Survey Data, author's analysis
Current Population Survey Data, author's analysis

If having separate households and empty nesting is indeed what Americans try to do when they  can, then the economic stagnation since the 1970s (with the 1990s exception) and now the sharp downturn of the Great Recession have put a crimp in that plan – along with any idea of turning the kid’s room into a den.

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.