This report highlights the benefits of marriage delayed in America, from better economic opportunities for women to a lower divorce rate, and its costs, such as higher levels of dissatisfaction and depression among twentysomethings and, especially, the emergence of the Great Crossover. Today, the median age at first marriage (for women who become wives) is now higher than the median age at first childbearing (for those who become mothers). College-educated Americans (and their kids) are more likely to enjoy the benefits, and Middle American and poor Americans (and their kids) to pay the costs, of delayed marriage in America. This means that a majority of first children born to parents under thirty are born outside of marriage and exposed to the economic, social, and familial fallout associated with a nonmarital birth. Moreover, this report suggests that college-educated Americans (and their kids) are more likely to enjoy the benefits, and Middle American and poor Americans (and their kids) to pay the costs, of delayed marriage in America.
We believe, both for the sake of today’s twentysomethings and their children, that we can and should bring marriage and childbearing back into sync. Becoming a parent should be more intentional, and these relationship decisions should be embedded within what Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill have called the “success sequence”: completing at least a high-school education, getting a job, marrying, and then having children—in that order.50 For some twentysomethings in a good relationship, this may mean marrying earlier than today’s social norms suggest. For other twentysomethings, this will mean postponing parenthood until they are in a relationship with someone whom they would choose as a good partner for life. Of course, we also recognize that marriage is not for everyone and that not all parents can or should get married.
Bringing the relationship between childbearing and marriage back into sync among today’s twentysomethings will not be an easy task, and there are no panaceas for strengthening family formation among contemporary young adults. Policy makers, civic and religious leaders, educators, social-service professionals, business leaders, journalists, and the shapers of our popular culture—including the twentysomethings themselves—need to be brought into a meaningful conversation on ways that the institutions they represent can renew the terms of relationships, marriage, and parenthood among twentysomethings in the United States—especially poor and Middle Americans, who are having the most difficulty establishing strong and stable families as young adults.
This conversation will need to tackle a number of tough questions if society is to help reconnect marriage and childbearing among today’s young adults and, more fundamentally, to help them make good choices about relationships, parenthood, and marriage. These questions fall into three domains:
- Educational and Economic Policy
- Family Policy
- Relationship Culture
Educational and Economic Policy
One reason why today’s twentysomethings are often hesitant to get married, and then have difficulty sustaining their marriages, is that the economic foundations of family life are eroding in many poor and Middle American communities across the nation. More and more employers require their new hires to have at least some college,51 yet young adults who do attend college often find limited job prospects and mountains of student debt waiting for them on the other end. In fact, two-thirds of recent college graduates have more than $25,000 in debt.52 Not surprisingly, a recent Pew report found that 20 percent of young adults have postponed marriage because of today’s economic conditions.53 It may be that the answer to fostering stronger family life among twentysomethings is simple—“it’s the economy, stupid”—yet even this view raises hard questions:
1 – How do we put post-secondary education within reach for young Middle Americans in a way that doesn’t propel them into overwhelming debt, especially as tuitions continue to rise?
Expanding tuition-assistance programs readily comes to mind, but surely any such efforts will be at the mercy of each budget and business cycle—those times when we most need to be retooling and strengthening the skills of our young labor force will likely be the same times when fiscal belts are being tightened. A middle way that remains sustainable during boom and bust seems necessary—one that includes a strong focus on nontraditional degrees and accelerated traditional degrees, one that focuses on increasing the proportion of students who finish those degrees, and one that makes college degrees available to students at lower costs. There must also be a more realistic assessment—on the part of students, schools and lenders—of what specific educational goals are being realized, what they cost, and how they connect to labor-market prospects; yet the challenge will be to implement this in a way that doesn’t create a chilling effect or leave large swaths of young adults behind. Some of these shifts in postsecondary education are already occurring—how can we move further in this direction?
2 – How do we improve the job prospects for young adults who will not get a college degree but are willing and able to receive vocational training?
Surely improving the economy overall will help young adults without college degrees, as a rising tide lifts many boats, but how can these young adults be better prepared to enter the labor market even when the economy isn’t booming? Even during recessions, there are decent jobs that go unfilled due to a lack of qualified applicants. How can education and industry leaders work together more closely to target high-demand occupations that pay good salaries and formalize pathways into jobs in these sectors? Countries like Austria, Germany, and the United Kingdom are achieving good success with vocational training, apprenticeship programs and placements for their young adults in industries as varied as nursing, information technology, and advanced manufacturing. There certainly seems to be untapped potential for the United States to follow in their footsteps, yet we have mused about the European apprenticeship model for decades—what would it take to actually take some steps in this direction?54
3 – And what about young adults who don’t continue their education beyond
We are unlikely to return to the days of old where jobs straight out of high school paid good wages with pensions. It’s certainly possible, in theory, to increase wages and benefits beyond what the labor market would offer if left to its own devices, either through requirements or subsidy, yet such efforts have limited evidence of success. And many policy makers and labor economists worry, in particular, that forcing employers to raise wages and benefits could lead to a contraction in the number of jobs available to young workers with less education.55 Perhaps the jobs available to most recent high-school grads will remain low-wage with minimal benefits, and solutions should focus on keeping young adults from getting stuck in those jobs long-term. How can policy makers work with employers to promote better job laddering to help entry-level workers transition to better opportunities over time, either within firms or across firms?56
Even if society has some success in achieving the educational and labor-market shifts described above, certainly many twentysomethings will not achieve the level of economic success called for by the capstone marriage model, at least not as young adults. What can be done to put marriage within their reach (at least for those who seek it), strengthen relationships among those couples who already have children, and reduce the odds that children are born to single parents?
1 – In particular, can federal and state family policy be calibrated to renew the economic foundations of family life among today’s young adults?
The most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture estimate suggests that a middle-income family will spend $234,900 on raising a child to adulthood.57 To ease these costs, and the eroding foundations of Middle American family life, the federal government could, for example, expand the child tax credit to $3,000 per child and extend it not only to federal income taxes but also to payroll taxes. Such a policy could lower financial stress among young parents, in turn reducing their relationship turmoil and improving their odds for a good relationship. But what if such policies actually discourage healthy two-parent families by making single parenthood a more financially viable alternative? Are there ways to reduce the financial strain on families—all families—while not undermining the goal of making parenthood within marriage more attainable for young adults?
2 – And what about young adults who don’t have children yet but are at risk of unplanned pregnancy as they push marriage further and further toward the horizon?
Are there policies that could better signal to young adults that marriage can be a cornerstone on which to build their lives and not just a capstone once everything else is in place? Creating more family-friendly work places could signal, to women in particular, that starting a family does not need to be at the expense of upward mobility.58 In theory, the benefits of such changes needn’t be limited to women on professional tracks—practices such as job sharing and more flexible work schedules could benefit Middle American women as well. But can this be done, and if so, how? Such changes could be regulated, but would these lead to broader positive shifts in the American culture of work and family, or merely motivate employers to hire fewer young women?
3 – Given that many young adults feel they are proceeding within their relationships without a script, how can public policy better support young couples, and particularly young parents, in strengthening their relationships—or is this even a role for public policy?
Clearly, for young parents on public assistance, policy has played a role, through the healthy-relationship education activities funded within the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant. Although the record for these programs is mixed, the most established program, the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative, has achieved successes in improving the quality and stability of low-income relationships.59 Given the fragility of family life among low-income, twentysomething couples with children—especially cohabiting couples—federal and state policymakers should continue to experiment with programs that give these couples skills that will help them stay together and thrive. But what about all the young parents not on public assistance? Is there a role for public policy in promoting stronger relationships among them, or are these relationship and family matters better left to civil society?
4 – Moreover, in addition to helping young parents after an unplanned pregnancy and birth occurs, what about reaching young adults with efforts to prevent unplanned pregnancy?
Policy levers available to influence the availability and affordability of contraception are important but are likely to fall short unless there is also a focus on the need for responsible behaviors, the elements of a good relationship, and the importance of entering parenthood with intentionality. Influencing attitudes and behaviors is more complex than merely providing access to contraception, and there are limited interventions aimed at reaching young adults with these messages. Some do exist—for example, relationship education within the TANF program can include a module on prevention of subsequent unplanned pregnancy,60 and some college campuses offer lessons or materials on relationships and pregnancy prevention61—but their reach is limited. Can—or should—public policy play a role in reaching young adults with these messages more broadly, or should this be left to the shapers of relationship culture described below?
Of course the reach of public policy is limited, and the main shapers of relationship culture among young adults—Hollywood, the media, parents, and peers—need to be part of the solution as well. Today’s twentysomething men and women get little in the way of constructive guidance on the topic of marriage. To the extent marriage is a topic at all, it’s often framed as something best left for a young adult’s late twenties or thirties, often after a string of failed relationships. Media images have largely steered clear of addressing the central role that parenthood continues to play in the lives of most twentysomethings.
Equally important, today’s relationship culture offers virtually no signposts for young adults seeking to navigate romance, sex, and relationships in ways that will be fruitful for their current lives and their future families. All this is unfortunate, because as Meg Jay argues in The Defining Decade, when it comes to relationships, twentysomethings should not “settle” for “spending their twenties on no-criteria or low-criteria relationships that likely have little hope or intention of succeeding”62—especially when those relationships might lead to parenthood.
Ideally, the main shapers of today’s relationship culture—from parents to peers, from relationship columnists to Hollywood writers—would rethink their messages about relationships, encouraging today’s twentysomething men and women to do likewise, in three ways:
1 – Both for their own sake, and for the sake of potential partners, twentysomethings should see their romantic relationships as opportunities to grow in the virtues of love and commitment.
Even when marriage is not immediately on the horizon, twentysomethings who take their relationships seriously, and do not rush into romance, will do better by themselves and their partners.63 They will also be less likely to accumulate a history of failed relationships, and the attendant emotional baggage, that undercuts their odds of forging a good marriage in the future.64
2 – The broader culture should respect the choice of twentysomethings to marry, especially those who have reached their midtwenties, provided that they are in a good relationship.
Indeed, this report suggests that men and women in their midtwenties have decent odds of marital success, and in some domains of marital life—such as marital happiness and passion—they are more likely to flourish than are their peers who wait until their thirties to marry. As society cautions young adults against jumping into marriage too young, it should also consider the other side of the coin, articulated by one single, thirtysomething woman in this way: “The best boyfriend I ever had was when I was in my mid-twenties. I just didn’t think I was supposed to be [married] with someone then.”65 So, for twentysomethings in a good relationship, marriage is an option that should not be ignored or devalued.
3 – Parents, peers, and the larger culture should encourage today’s twentysomethings to weave together their plans for parenthood and marriage and to align those plans with their sexual behavior.
Clearly, the sequence of marriage-then-parenthood is not a guaranteed recipe for success for every family. Nor is going out of sequence a guaranteed recipe for failure. However, the growing disconnect between sexual activity, parental intentions, and marriage needs to be addressed. Most unmarried twentysomethings report they are not seeking parenthood at this time, yet roughly half are having sex and not consistently taking steps to prevent pregnancy. Moreover, the majority of young adults report that nonmarital childbearing is acceptable.66 They seem unaware of the toll that it can take on their lives and our society.
Of course whether the shapers of today’s cultural norms will change their messages regarding twentysomethings and marriage is unclear. Obviously, the primary role of entertainment media is to entertain. And there will always be debate as to how much media is shaping current culture versus merely echoing it. Some parents may not even realize they are sending negative messages about marriage to their young-adult children, and other parents may firmly believe that marriage would amount to “settling” for their children—at least in the twenties. Peers often have no more of a constructive script on the topic of marriage than do their friends. Nevertheless, if we seek to reconnect marriage and parenthood, these players must have a seat at the table for any real change to take place.
This report makes clear that too many young adults are drifting unintentionally into parenthood, before they have a plan or a partner who will enable them to give their children the life and family they deserve. This report makes clear that too many young adults are drifting unintentionally into parenthood, before they have a plan or a partner who will enable them to give their children the life and family they deserve. Young adults need clear messages and guidance, along with the requisite social support, to help them align their family plans with their sexual behavior. This may seem like a tall order, but the nation has succeeded in reducing teen births with the right messages and programs; now it’s time to extend that record of success to twentysomething women and men.
To be clear, as noted above, we believe that marriage is not for everyone, be they twentysomething or some other age. We recognize that not all parents can or should get married. And we think that delayed marriage in America has led to real gains, especially for college-educated women. Nevertheless, the decoupling of marriage and parenthood represented by the Great Crossover is deeply worrisome. It fuels economic and educational inequality, not to mention family instability, amid the rising generation. That is why the United States should consider a comprehensive approach, encompassing economic, educational, civic, and cultural initiatives, to help twentysomething men and women figure out new ways to put the baby carriage after marriage.
51 Catherine Rampell, “Degree Inflation? Jobs that Newly Require B.A.’s,” The New York Times (December 4, 2012), http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/04/degree-inflation-jobs-that-newly-require-b-a-s.
52 See Anne Johnson, Tobin Van Ostern, and Abraham White, “The Student Debt Crisis,” report (October 25, 2012), Center for American Progress and Campus Progress, www.americanprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/WhiteStudentDebt-5.pdf.
53 See Pew Research Center, “Young, Underemployed and Optimistic,” trends report (February 9, 2012), www.pewsocialtrends.org/files/2012/02/young-underemployed-and-optimistic.pdf.
54 See Robert I. Lerman, “Expanding Apprenticeship: A Way to Enhance Skills and Careers,” report (October 2010), Urban Institute, www.urban.org/UploadedPDF/901384-Expanding-Apprenticeship.pdf.
55 See, for instance, David Neumark and William Wascher, “Minimum Wages and Employment: A Review of Evidence from the New Minimum Wage Research,” National Bureau of Economic Research working paper (November 2006), http://www.nber.org/papers/w12663.
56 For a number of good ideas to improve job opportunities for less-educated Americans, see Don Peck, Pinched: How the Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures and What We Can Do About It (New York: Broadway, 2011).
57 See Mark Lino, “Expenditures on Children by Families, 2011,” miscellaneous publication 1528-2011 (June 2012), U.S. Department of Agriculture, www.cnpp.usda.gov/Publications/CRC/crc2011.pdf.
58 See Janet C. Gornick and Marcia K. Meyers, Families That Work: Policies for Reconciling Parenthood and Employment (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2005).
59 See Theodora Ooms and Alan J. Hawkins, “Marriage and Relationship Education: A Promising Strategy for Strengthening Low-Income, Vulnerable Families,” in The State of Our Unions 2012 (Charlottesville, VA: National Marriage Project and Institute for American Values, 2012), www.stateofourunions.org/2012/SOOU2012.pdf.
60 See, for example, National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, “Planning for Children Module,” www.thenationalcampaign.org/planningforchildren.
61 For examples of current efforts, see National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, “Make it Personal: How Pregnancy Planning and Prevention Helps Students Complete College.” http://www.thenationalcampaign.org/colleges.
62 Meg Jay, The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter—and How to Make the Most of Them Now (New York: Twelve, 2012), 78.
63 See, for instance, Sharon Sassler, Fenaba R. Addo, and Daniel T. Lichter, “The Tempo of Sexual Activity and Later Relationship Quality,” Journal of Marriage and Family 74 (August 2012): 708–725.
64 See Daniel T. Lichter and Zhenchao Qian, “Serial Cohabitation and the Marital Life Course,” Journal of Marriage and Family 70 (November 2008): 861–878.
65 Jay, Defining Decade, 78.
66 See Kaye, Suellentrop, and Sloup, Fog Zone.