If you’ve spent any time in the vicinity of a television in recent years, you’ve surely noticed the crowd of amiable, middle class, young, single urbanites wandering its channels. They wisecrack their way through shows like New Girl, The Mindy Project, and Girls in the spirit of their prototypes on Friends, Seinfeld, and Sex and the City. As they move in and out of jobs and careers, sip coffee or cocktails with their friends, and meet, share a bed with, and dump or get dumped by boyfriends and girlfriends, these attractive creatures have helped redefine the twenties and early thirties as a time for self-discovery—a new but crucial life stage before the burdens of wedding anniversaries, mortgages, and car seats set in. This genre is the pop-culture offspring of an important demographic change: the rising age of marriage. The typical American is now well on the way to thirty before tying the knot, later than at any point in history.But their zeitgeisty charm aside, television’s twentysomethings occupy an outsized cultural space that obscures the reality of life before marriage as it is experienced by many Americans. Unimaginable as it might be to Hannah and Marnie from Girls—and to their fans—a large percentage of unmarried men and women of their age are spending more time during their twenties at 3 a.m. feedings and diaper changes than studying for grad-school exams or flirting their way through happy hours. In fact, at the age of 25, 44 percent of women have had a baby, while only 38 percent have married; by the time they turn 30, about two-thirds of American women have had a baby, typically out of wedlock.1 These twentysomethings have now helped to push the baby carriage well in front of marriage for young women in the United States.
This report looks beyond popular understandings of contemporary twentysomething life to explore how delayed marriage in America affects today’s young women, men, and their children, as well as some of the reasons behind this shift. Later marriage cannot be called breaking news, nor can it be described as simply good news or bad. Over the last four decades, the age for tying the knot has risen steadily for all educational and socioeconomic groups, from tax lawyers to sanitation workers, bankers to lab technicians, professors to Walmart cashiers. The median age of marriage for women is now nearly 27; for men, almost 29. A historically large number of young adults are single well into their thirties. As the saying popularized by rapper Jay-Z has it, “Thirty’s the new twenty.”
The good news behind these trends is, first, that later marriage allows young men and especially women the chance to finish their education and to stabilize their careers, finances, and youthful passions before they start a family. “Young adults today are not ready to get married until they get all their ducks in a row,” write Richard Settersten and Barbara E. Ray, authors of Not Quite Adults.2 In particular, delayed marriage has improved women’s financial lot. This is especially true for women with a college degree. The media is full of stories about women who postpone marrying for the sake of their careers only to find themselves facing romantic purgatory in their thirties, much like the thirty-one-year-old heroine of The Mindy Project. But Mindy’s well-paid and high-status profession—she is an obstetrician—accurately points to the significant upside of her single status. Women with a college degree who wait to marry until at least thirty, and high-school-educated women without a degree who also wait until thirty, earn more than those who marry at younger ages. In fact, this report finds that they earn $18,152 and $4,052 more per year, compared to their sisters who marry before twenty.
Second, later marriage has helped to bring down America’s stratospheric divorce rates. Though many people seem unaware of it, the proportion of marriages ending in divorce stopped rising around 1980; it has been falling slowly but steadily ever since, in part because Americans are getting married at older ages.
But if a delay in marriage has produced these happy results, it has also helped to create a troubling one. We call it the Great Crossover, after the “crossover” phenomenon first documented by the National Center for Family & Marriage Research and explored in greater detail here.3Figure I contains two trend lines, one showing the median age at which women marry, the other the median age at which women have their first child. Around forty years ago, as women starting putting off their wedding vows, they also postponed having children at about the same pace. But after several decades, that was no longer true. Women’s postponement of marriage kept soaring while their postponement of childbearing took a more leisurely climb. About twenty years ago, the two trend lines crossed, putting the age of first birth before the age of first marriage for American women as a whole. Now the median age at first marriage for women lags about a year behind that of first birth.
Of course, at an individual level, the women delaying marriage are not always the same as the women who are having children,4 so the Great Crossover does not mean that a majority of children are now born outside of marriage. However, as marriage gets delayed to later ages, the odds of having a child outside of marriage increase. Indeed, in the United States, 48 percent of all first births are now to unmarried women. Thus, the nation is at a tipping point, on the verge of moving into a new demographic reality where the majority of first births in the United States precede marriage.Indeed, in the United States, 48 percent of all first births are now to unmarried women. Thus, the nation is at a tipping point, on the verge of moving into a new demographic reality where the majority of first births in the United States precede marriage.
Digging a little deeper, we see that what we call “Middle American” women—that is, moderately educated women with a high-school degree and perhaps a year or two of college—are playing a leading role in the trend. They make up more than half of the young women in the United States,5 and though they are following in the footsteps of their more educated sisters in postponing marriage, they are not adopting their strategy of delaying parenthood. In fact, as Figure II indicates, the Great Crossover is concentrated among these Middle American women; there has been no crossover among college-educated women. Middle American women crossed over around 2000, and since then the gap between the age of marriage and age of childbearing among Middle American women has grown considerably. Today, as a group, they have their first child more than two years before they get to the church or city hall, to the point where 58 percent of their first births are now out of wedlock. These women are not spending their twenties finding themselves or “getting their ducks in a row”; they are providing for and raising young children, often without a husband—as Figure II also indicates—a path that has long been associated primarily with more disadvantaged women.6
Young adults are putting off marriage—and the evidence is strong that they are putting it off, not writing it off—for a number of reasons. Marriage has shifted from being the cornerstone to the capstone of adult life.7 No longer the foundation on which young adults build their prospects for future prosperity and happiness, marriage now comes only after they have moved toward financial and psychological independence. It’s not hard to understand this mindset, especially given that many of today’s young adults are children of divorce and express worry about divorce themselves; they view marriage as something that should not be undertaken without a suitable exit strategy. Unfortunately, declining job prospects for Middle Americans may simply put this capstone ideal out of reach for many.
Moreover, one of the primary reasons for getting married—starting a family—is increasingly viewed as a relic of the past. The institution of marriage, and even the presence of two parents, are seen as nice but not necessary for raising children. Thus, even when a baby is coming, many young adults see no need to rush to the altar. Finally, many young adults in romantic relationships greatly overestimate the chances that they have already met their future spouse, which makes them vulnerable to sliding into parenthood even though they haven’t married.8
If young mothers and fathers were actually marrying each other a year or two after the arrival of their bundle of joy and remaining together, the Great Crossover might not be much to worry about. That’s not what’s happening. Middle American mothers are often living with their child’s father at the time they give birth—in fact, they begin to cohabit at about the same age they used to marry—but these relationships often don’t last. As Figure III indicates, nearly 40 percent of cohabiting twentysomething parents who had a baby between 2000 and 2005 split up by the time their child was five; that’s three times higher than the rate for twentysomething parents who were married when they had a child. The cohabitants were also more than three times more likely than married parents to move on to a cohabiting or marital relationship with a new partner if their relationship did break up.9 Researchers paint a sorry picture of the effect these disruptions have; children suffer emotionally, academically, and financially when they are thrown onto this kind of relationship carousel.10
This isn’t to say that unmarried mothers and fathers are faring much better emotionally than their children. New findings in this report show that unmarried twentysomething parents, both women and men, report high rates of depression and dissatisfaction; the mood among cohabiting parents is a little better than that of singles but still gloomier than that of married mothers and fathers. Actually, singles and cohabitants without children are also more likely to be depressed than are young married men and women. Compared to married twentysomething men, their single and cohabiting peers are less satisfied with their lives and markedly more likely to drink too much, making some of them real-life versions of the childmen who inhabit the films of Judd Apatow (think Knocked Up) or characters played by Adam Sandler, Owen Wilson, and the like. Compared to married twentysomething men, their single and cohabiting peers are less satisfied with their lives and markedly more likely to drink too much, making some of them real-life versions of the childmen who inhabit the films of Judd Apatow (think Knocked Up) or characters played by Adam Sandler, Owen Wilson, and the like.
Of course, putting off marriage is working well enough for the Carries and Hannahs of American society. These are women who, as Hanna Rosin writes in The End of Men, “have more important things [than relationships, marriage, and children] going on, such as good grades and internships and job interviews and a financial future of their own.” 11
But women who aren’t dreaming about interning at Condé Nast or interviewing at Morgan Stanley may see things rather differently. For a woman whose nine-to-five is spent filling out insurance forms in a doctor’s office or even overseeing a sales staff at Staples, a baby might seem more enriching than a dollar-an-hour raise. If marriage is now only attainable for those who are financially set—a goal they’re not sure of ever reaching—they often choose or drift “unintentionally” into parenthood before they are ready to marry. Forty years ago, when marriage still operated as the cornerstone of adulthood, only a small percentage of the births to women in their early twenties were nonmarital; by 2010, it was the large majority. If thirty is the new twenty, today’s unmarried twentysomething moms are the new teen mothers.
If thirty is the new twenty, today’s unmarried twentysomething moms are the new teen mothers.
Marriage delayed, then, is the centerpiece of two scripts that help create two different outcomes and two different life chances for the next generation. For the college-educated third of our population, it has been a success. For the rest, not just the truly disadvantaged but large swaths of Middle America, not so much. Perhaps there is a better path for the young women—and men—whom we don’t see on the gentrified streets of television sitcoms.
2 Richard Settersten and Barbara E. Ray, Not Quite Adults: Why 20-Somethings Are Choosing a Slower Path to Adulthood, and Why It’s Good for Everyone (New York: Bantam, 2010), 86.
3 See Julia Arroyo, Krista K. Payne, Susan L. Brown, and Wendy D. Manning, “Crossover in Median Age at First Marriage and First Birth: Thirty Years of Change,” family profile FP-12-03 (2012), National Center for Family & Marriage Research, http://ncfmr.bgsu.edu/pdf/family_profiles/file107893.pdf.
4 While these populations largely overlap, they are not completely identical. According to the 2010 June Current Population Survey, 73.8 percent of women aged forty to forty-four had ever married and had children, 10.9 percent had ever married and had no children, 7.4 percent had never married and had children, and 7.9 percent had never married and had no children.
5 According to the 2012 Current Population Survey, 54 percent of women aged twenty-five to twenty-nine have a high-school diploma or some college, 37 percent are college educated, and 9 percent have less than a high-school diploma; likewise, 59 percent of men aged twenty-five to twenty-nine have a high-school diploma or some college, 30 percent are college educated, and 11 percent have less than a high-school diploma.
6 See Matthew McKeever and Nicholas H. Wolfinger, “Thanks for Nothing: Income and Labor Force Participation for Never-married Mothers Since 1982” Social Science Research 40 (January 2011): 63–76.
7 See Andrew J. Cherlin, The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today (New York: Vintage, 2009).
8 Kelleen Kaye, Katherine Suellentrop, and Corinna Sloup, The Fog Zone: How Misperceptions, Magical Thinking, and Ambivalence Put Young Adults at Risk for Unplanned Pregnancy (Washington, DC: National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 2009), www.thenationalcampaign.org/fogzone/fogzone.aspx.
9 The instability associated with cohabitation illustrated in Figure III is partly a consequence of the fact that cohabiting couples have less education and income than their married peers, as we note below. But even after controlling for socioeconomic differences, children born to cohabiting couples are significantly more likely to experience the dissolution of their parents’ relationship, and to be exposed to a new romantic partner in the household.
10 See Cherlin, Marriage-Go-Round; Paul R. Amato, “The Impact of Family Formation Change on the Cognitive, Social, and Emotional Well-being of the Next Generation,” Future of Children 15 (Fall 2005): 75–96.
11 Hanna Rosin, The End of Men and the Rise of Women (New York: Riverhead, 2012), 21.