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Reconsidering the Northwest European Family System: Living Arrangements of the Aged in Comparative Historical Perspective

By Steven Ruggles


During the past four decades, historians and demographers have argued that historical Northwest Europe and North America had a unique weak-family system characterized by neolocal marriage and nuclear family structure. This analysis uses newly available micro-data from 84 historical and contemporary censuses of 34 countries to evaluate whether the residential behavior of the aged in historical Northwest Europe and North America was truly distinctive. The results show that with simple controls for agricultural employment and demographic structure, comparable measures of the living arrangements of the aged show little systematic difference between nineteenth-century Northwest Europe and North America and twentieth-century developing countries. These findings cast doubt on the hypothesis that Northwest Europeans and North Americans had an exceptional historical pattern of preference for nuclear families. Copyright (c) 2009 The Population Council, Inc..

DOI identifier: 10.1111/j.1728-4457.2009.00275.x
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