SALT LAKE CITY — An overwhelming majority of Americans, 75 percent, say adultery is always wrong. And most Americans don't do it. Over the past 30 years, the General Social Survey finds the share of married people who cheat has hovered pretty steadily at about 16 percent.
But University of Utah sociologist Nicholas Wolfinger says a generation gap has emerged since 2000 when it comes to infidelity: Older Americans cheat more than in the past. Younger Americans cheat less. His findings are published on a blog of the Institute for Family Studies.
Wolfinger was looking "at most of the usual demographic suspects" to see if anything had changed, including infidelity. And it was flat. But when he looked at patterns based on age differences, he noticed the shift in the numbers while analyzing GSS surveys that asked "have you ever had sex with someone other than your husband or wife while you were married?"
There wasn't much difference based on age in the answers until around 2004. He said that's when Americans in their mid-50s and 60s started reporting rates of extramarital sex that were roughly 5 to 6 percentage points higher than those of younger adults.
General Social Survey | Aaron Thorup, General Social Survey
Last year, 20 percent of those older adults — younger baby boomers and older members of Gen X — said they'd cheated, while the rate for younger generations was 14 percent. The finding held true even after he controlled for other factors like gender, race/ethnicity and education levels. The rate of infidelity drops again among those in their 70s and beyond.
The findings come at a time when national health experts are noting an increase in the number of folks in assisted living and nursing homes who have sexually transmitted diseases. More older Americans are divorcing, too. But Wolfinger said it's not clear how or if the trends of infidelity, gray divorce and disease drive each other.
When he dug a little deeper, Wolfinger said, he found most of those who said they were having extramarital sex had been married for two or three decades. He notes that "adultery seems to be both cause and consequence of a failing marriage."
Wolfinger told the Deseret News that his analysis doesn't explain the generation gap in infidelity, but history might offer some clues.
"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," he wrote on the blog. "They may have firsthand experience with 1970s-era experiments with non-monogamy. A few people born in the late 1950s may have had swingers for parents, leading offspring to question taboos surrounding infidelity."
A study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior in 2015 reported that people now in their 50s and 60s have, as a generation, had "more sex partners in their lifetime" than any other generation before or since, he said. Besides that, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has noted that teens' rates of sexual activity have "dipped significantly" compared to the 1990 peak.
Baby boomers are also the generation that had more sex as teenagers than even people who are in their 20s and 30s today, he said.
Two other factors may also come into play, he told the Deseret News: medications like Viagra and changing attitudes. "Collectively, we still disapprove of sex outside of wedlock, but we disapprove less strongly than we used to," he wrote. The biggest shift, he added, has been among people in their 60s, 70s and 80s, who disapprove less than in the past. Only those in their 40s and 50s disapprove more than they used to.
New 'old' news
Social challenges that may relate to infidelity have a silver tinge recently, compared to the past. "Gray divorce" is increasing. More seniors have sexually transmitted diseases.
Pew Research Center reported in March that "led by baby boomers," divorce among those over 50 is on the rise. "The divorce rate has roughly doubled since the 1990s," wrote Renee Stepler.
One possible reason for that increase among older people is that younger people are delaying marriage, and those who do marry are more likely to have completed college. That's a group known to be less likely to divorce. Meanwhile, many of the boomers may be in second marriages, which are typically less stable than first marriages.
Lots of factors may contribute to the rise in divorce among older couples, from the fact that children are grown, so couples don't stay together for their sake, to financial considerations. A 2016 Deseret News article outlined possible financial factors and ramifications. More than half of women in their 50s to mid-60s are working, so they are not as financially dependent on a spouse as in the past. Couples by that time may have accumulated property, wealth and other resources, too, that can — and will — be divided, including retirement accounts.
And in a blog for The Huffington Post, Derrick Y. McDaniel, author of "Eldercare, the Essential Guide to Caring for Your Loved One and Yourself," wrote that "STD transmission among the elderly is unfortunately a common and growing problem." From 2007-11, chlamydia among those 65 and older rose 31 percent. Syphilis increased 52 percent. In 2013, he wrote, 27 percent of those diagnosed with HIV in America were 50 and older.
Attitudes and behavior
A 2014 Gallup survey showed changing attitudes and more acceptance toward previously unpopular behaviors, but noted that the national attitude toward infidelity "has not budged," the Deseret News reported at the time.
General Social Survey | Aaron Thorup, General Social Survey
The Deseret News and YouGov recently released a survey on generational attitudes about infidelity. One of the questions is what actually counts as cheating. In all categories of behavior — from having sexual relationships with someone other than your partner to connecting with someone via social media — baby boomers and older were the most likely to consider the activity cheating.
But that consistent view hasn't meant unchanged behavior. The story noted infidelity appeared to be on the rise among women, although they were not as likely to be unfaithful as men were.
One of the biggest shifts has been in attitudes toward nonmarital sex, which includes both cheating when one is married and sex between adults who are not married. The General Social Survey said that acceptance of sex outside of marriage "rose steadily" for those born 1901-1924 (GI generation) and those born 1946-1964 (baby boomers), slipped a little for early Generation X members (1965-1981) and then rose so that those since have been "the most accepting."
The GSS also noted an increase in the number of sexual partners from the 1920s through the Gen Xers who were born in the 1960s, followed by a dip among millennials.