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SALT LAKE CITY — While the generation gap manifests itself in a myriad of ways, the newest trend is a bit surprising: extramarital sex.
Older Americans are cheating on their spouses more often than their younger counterparts. By 2016, 20 percent of Americans over the age of 55 said they had engaged in extramarital sex while 14 percent of those under age 55 said they had cheated, according to Nicholas Wolfinger, a Family and Consumer studies professor at the University of Utah.
The Institute for Family Studies published Wolfinger’s research brief “America’s New Generation Gap in Extramarital Sex” July 5 after the professor discovered the surprising trend based on his analysis of data from the General Social Survey.
While the percentage of Americans who report engaging in sex outside of marriage has held steady for decades around 16 percent, this trend has masked a startling change between the generations. As younger people have fewer affairs, the older generation is having more extramarital sex, causing the overall amount to remain the same.
“For the first few years of the millennium, there were scant age differences,” Wolfinger said. “Starting after 2004, Americans over 55 began reporting rates of extramarital sex that were about five or six percentage points higher than were being offered by younger adults.”
Wolfinger’s analysis found the age difference couldn’t be explained by socio-demographic differences between respondents including sex, age, race or education, but the trend toward extramarital sex was being driven by people in their 50s and 60s who had been married for 20 to 30 years.
Another way to interpret the data, Wolfinger said, was to take a look at when the respondents were born.
“Perhaps the propensity for extramarital sex is a product of what people experienced while growing up, not a question of how old they are,” Wolfinger said. “People born between 1940 and 1959 report the highest rates of extramarital sex. These are the first generations to come of age during the sexual revolution, so it’s understandable they are more likely to have sex with someone without their spouses.”
The uptick in extramarital affairs is being led by baby boomers and Gen Xers, but they waited to engage in the practice until they got to their 50s or 60s, after being married for decades, Wolfinger said. Part of that uptick may also be attributed to the advent of Viagra, giving older Americans the ability to do what they couldn’t before, he said.
“This does tail other trends we’ve seen. The divorce rate in the United States has been on the overall decline since 1980, but it’s been increasing in the last few years for people in their 50s and 60s and 70s. It’s called gray divorce,” Wolfinger said. “And we see a huge uptick among sexually transmitted diseases among the elderly. Indeed, I was just chatting with a neighbor, and she was talking about her mother who lives in the nursing home and how her mother was constantly fending off advances from male nursing home residents.”
The younger generation, on the other hand, is less sexually engaged with fewer sexual partners, possibly because they came of age during the HIV epidemic, Wolfinger said. In fact, teen sex has dipped significantly after peaking in 1990.
Based on the trends, Wolfinger believes American society may be trending more towards monogamy, though polyamory and other forms of “ethical nonmonogamy” are also becoming more prevalent.
“We didn’t see this in generations before now, but these things are cyclical. … But social science has a terrible record of forecasting,” Wolfinger said.