Changes in Marriage, Fertility, and Female Labor Participation in the Twentieth Century

Date of Award

Winter 12-15-2013

Author's School

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Author's Department


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Type



Family life has changed tremendously in the US in the twentieth century. Gone are the days when marriage was a majority life goal for women and a covenant for the union. Married women used to specialize in housework and fertility is a nature consequence under marriage. Throughout the twentieth century, we observed marriage-go-round and marriage is no longer the first priority for women. Fertility can happen within or outside marriage. Women are as educated as men and work in different industries. The goal of this dissertation is to understand theses changes and identify the causes for that. The thesis consists of three chapters. The first chapter focuses on the change in marital behaviors from the 60s to the 90s. In the second chapter, I analyzed the effects of World War II on fertility and marital behaviors during the war years and the post-war years. The third chapter will refocus back to the fertility and labor market behaviors of women in the late twentieth century.

During the 60s to the 90s, the marriage rate dropped, divorce rate raised and cohabitation became more common. The first chapter revisited the function of marriage and its distinctions with cohabitation. While both forms of relationship allow couples to enjoy the economy of scales as a union, there are clearly some fundamental differences. Marriage provides commitment for couples. This commitment is important in specialization, insuring against future income risk or investing in children. Cohabitation on the other hand provides future flexibility in partnership. I constructed an endogenous relationship choice model and evaluated three causes of these changes: improvement in home production technology, reduction in gender wage gap and decreased divorce cost. The model is calibrated with the US data in 1995 and counterfactual experiments is performed by altering the parameters. The results show that reduction in the gender wage gap is the most significant contributor for the changes. However, it is not able to explain the rises in divorce rate. On the other hand, decreases in divorce cost is able to explain most of the increases in divorce rate.

During World War II, a significant number of (single) men was drawn into the army. This significantly distorted the marriage market during and after WWII which lead to a higher age differential after the war and lead to higher post-war fertility. In the second chapter, I constructed a life-cycle model and calibrated a steady state to the pre-WWII year in the US. Then, I give the model economy with a war shock and analyze the impulse response on the marriage market and fertility behaviors. The results show that WWII had created a big distortion to the marriage market and lead to lower age differential during the war and higher age gap after the war. The effect on fertility post-war was also positive. However, the magnitude is far from explaining the American baby boom.


We have observed significant fertility delay in the late half of the twentieth century. At the same time, women were more educated and engaged in much higher professions. In the third chapter, I argue that incomplete information to job commitment is one of the cause of this change. More women are engaging in professional careers since the 60s. Professional jobs usually require job commitment as the hiring cost and training cost are high. When job commitment can only be observed by past working pattern, women are more reluctant to spend time out of work. This signaling effect creates a delay in fertility. The theory provides important policy implications on how to promote fertility. As the problem relies on firms unable to identify the job commitment, providing subsidies to family is not an effective policy. However, providing subsidies directly to the firm is an effective policy to alleviate the problem.


English (en)

Chair and Committee

Rodolfo Manuelli

Committee Members

Maria Cannon, Limor Golan, Jr-Shin Li, Juan Pantano, Yongseok Shin


Permanent URL: https://doi.org/10.7936/K7NC5Z5N

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