According to data from the General Social Survey (GSS), older Americans aged 55 and up have reported higher rates of extramarital sex than younger Americans. Nicholas Wolfinger, a professor in the University of Utah’s Department of Family and Consumer Studies, worked with information from the survey to develop multiple conclusions of what these responses may indicate.
While participants have been asked the question, “[H]ave you ever had sex with someone other than your husband or wife while you were married?” in surveys since 1991, the upward trend among older Americans began to show in GSS studies around 2000. While the wording of the posed question may include alternative circumstances, such as consensual non-monogamy and polyamory, Wolfinger points out that, “[N]o matter how many polyamorists there are today, old-fashioned adultery seems to have risen among older Americans.”
In 2004, the percentage of older Americans engaging in extramarital relationships equaled the percentage of their younger counterparts in that same area for the first time since 1995. After 2004, a noticeable shift occurred, and the percentage for older Americans having affairs continued to rise. In the most recent survey, conducted in 2016, 20 percent of Americans over 55 admitted to cheating, compared to 14 percent of those under 55.
Not only are older Americans reporting higher rates of extramarital sex, but younger Americans are showing lower rates, signaling a greater value placed on monogamy in recent years. This could indicate a shift in values and morals between different generations. The time period in which Americans come of age could play a huge role in determining the decisions they make later in life.
Factors such as gender, race and education, according to Wolfinger, don’t influence married Americans to engage in extramarital sex. Rather, Wolfinger believes that the period in which any given American grew up is the greatest influence in swinging them one way or another. Wolfinger explains that older Americans born between 1940 and 1959 have high rates of adultery or non-monogamy because they grew up during the sexual revolution of the 70’s, which increased acceptance of sex outside of traditional heterosexual, monogamous relationships.
Another possible explanation centers around the concept of age. The data in the GSS survey could just show that Americans in general, once they reach a certain age, are more inclined to cheat on their spouse.
However, Wolfinger does not believe that age is accountable for the rise in extramarital sex among older Americans. While age and cohort effects may be working alongside one another to explain the diverging trends in extramarital sex, age by itself isn’t enough.
“Older Americans only became more sexually active outside marriage in recent years,” he said.
Both of these possible conclusions directly play into what social scientists refer to as the “age-period-cohort” problem.
“Age is self-explanatory,” Wolfinger said in his analysis of GSS data. “Period reflects the social influences people experience at the time they’re interviewed. Cohort refers to what people experience while growing up. Each dimension of time — age, period, cohort — may potentially have a distinct effect on people’s propensities for extramarital sex. Yet it is often impossible to distinguish the three.”