The Great Crossover: The Why

This raises the question of why young women without a college education, including Middle American women, are not delaying parenthood in the same ways they are delaying marriage. Why do they decide to have children with the very men they consider not good enough (or at least not ready) to marry, when they have years before the dreaded biological clock ticks loud enough for them to hear?

Academics and journalists often treat the challenging economic conditions facing less-educated Americans as explanation enough for the explosive growth in unmarried parenthood. “For the approximately two-thirds of the population that does not have a college degree, an increasing number of men don’t have the steady, adequate-paying jobs that allow them to provide the foundation for a successful family life,” write family scholars Naomi Cahn and June Carbone, authors of Red Families v. Blue Families. “Nor are working class men who feel like failures in the job market prepared to play roles backing up their wives and children.” As a result, lower-income women “are increasingly giving up on men and marriage.”34 But money problems alone don’t explain why less-educated women are “giving up” on marriage but not motherhood.

The changing marriage culture has also played a role here. Remember that neither the capstone model, nor the soul mate ideal, nor the popular culture subscribes to the notion that marriage and children are a package deal. And having grown up in a world where rising rates of divorce and nonmarital childbearing separated marriage from parenthood, young adults are more inclined to take the view that marriage and parenthood are not necessarily connected, compared to previous generations. The Fog Zone, a study by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, finds 70 percent of young men and 77 percent of young women (age eighteen to twenty-nine) say that “it is OK for an unmarried female to have a child.”35 At the same time, according to a 2007 Pew report, the number of adults who see children as essential to a happy marriage declined markedly in just twenty years, from 65 percent in 1990 to 41 percent in 2007. The same report asked Americans to choose “which is closer to your views about the main purpose of marriage”—a lifetime union of two adults for mutual happiness and fulfillment, or for bearing and raising children? Sixty-five percent chose the former; only 23 percent, the latter.36

This capstone model of marriage does not typically lead to a nonmarital birth among college-educated women, because a twentysomething birth might derail their professional progress and because they have access to potential mates (educated, independent) who fit the model. Moreover, in better-educated circles, nonmarital childbearing is frowned upon in practice (if not always in theory). Thus, college-educated women have professional, personal, and social reasons to postpone marriage and parenthood together.37

But the capstone model of marriage is not serving the less privileged very well. The capstone model seems out of reach for many poor and Middle American couples, who do not have access to the kinds of jobs that would propel them into a comfortable middle-class lifestyle. So, with a capstone marriage out of reach and no appealing career paths ahead, poor and (increasingly) Middle American women turn instead to the traditional source of young-adult female identity—motherhood—for meaning and satisfaction.38 They end up setting a lower bar for deciding on the father of their child than for choosing a husband. But many of them feel free to do this because today’s marriage culture does not view marriage and parenthood as integrally connected to one another.

Of course, it may be that some of the women in question don’t decide to have children at all but get pregnant accidentally—or, even more likely, fall somewhere in between. Indeed, about half of all births to unmarried twentysomething women are “unintended,” and the rate of unintended pregnancy is dramatically higher among women with less education.39 But underlying unintended pregnancy is a great deal of ambivalence—competing desires to have everything in place first versus having a baby now. In fact, roughly half of unmarried young adults in the Fog Zone said they would like to have a baby now if things were different (53 percent of men and 47 percent of women), and even among those who said it was important to avoid pregnancy right now, over a third went on to say they would be happy if they got pregnant.40 Not surprisingly, this ambivalence rises as education levels, marriage prospects, and job opportunities fall. By contrast, more highly educated men and women, busy with their careers and youthful exploration, urgently want to avoid an unplanned pregnancy and so act accordingly. This may help explain why less-educated, never-married young adults are much less likely to consistently use contraception, compared to their college-educated peers (see Figure 16).


Adding to this ambivalence and decreased motivation to avoid pregnancy is the fact that some young adults assume they’re already with their future spouse. Of course, a person’s intuitions are not always highly developed at, say, 22. As Figure 17 indicates, about half of unmarried young adults in the Fog Zone survey—even those as young as eighteen and nineteen—say they expect to marry their current partner. Unfortunately, these young women and men are not always on the same page. Among those aged 18 to 29 without a high-school diploma, women are much less likely than men to say they expect to marry their current partner (47 percent compared to 67 percent). Among those with at least some college, it’s the reverse: 68 percent of women expect to see their current partner at the altar, compared to 46 percent of men. While men and women both expect to marry somebody some day, they often disagree as to whether that will be to each other.41 Given the strong desire for children among many young adults, and the assumption, at least among some of them, that they have already met Mr. or Ms. Right, it’s not hard to imagine how sliding into parenthood may be seen by them as a minor detour along the road to establishing a family.


It’s a good guess that cohabitation, with its vaguely defined commitments, helps confuse matters even more. Educated men and women tend to see living together as perhaps leading to, but nevertheless categorically distinct from, marriage; it’s a site of temporary emotional and sexual companionship that’s part of emerging, not full, adulthood. It’s not generally considered the best stage during which to welcome children. But the less educated, for whom marriage may feel out of reach anyway, may approach cohabitation as a kind of marriage lite, and a suitable setting for parenthood.

One of our most startling findings is that today’s young people of all education levels are entering their first coresidential relationship at about the same age as in the past; it’s just that now they are far more likely to be “living together” than married. As Figure 18 indicates, the percentage of younger twentysomething women in coresidential unions has not fallen from 1988 to 2010; indeed, it has held steady at about half. What has changed, clearly, is that they are substituting cohabitation for marriage.


Cohabitation among twentysomethings is fairly common among all educational groups, but it is more widespread among less-educated women. Close to half (49 percent) of twenty- to twenty-four-year-old female high-school dropouts are living with a boyfriend. The point here is that most women without a college degree continue to experience “love and babies” in their early twenties, just without the benefit of marriage. That’s way up from 14 percent in 1988. For women with a high-school diploma and maybe some college, the number is about 30 percent.42 And these women are having children outside of marriage in large numbers; indeed, about half of nonmarital births are to cohabiting couples.43 The point here is that most women without a college degree continue to experience “love and babies” in their early twenties, just without the benefit of marriage. So, for Middle Americans, delayed marriage is not a sign of indifference to family life, but a sign that marriage is losing much of its institutional purpose.

34 June Carbone and Naomi Cahn, “The Marrying Kind: How Class Shapes Our Search for a Soul Mate,” blog post (February 14, 2012), Next New Deal (blog of the Roosevelt Institute),
35 Kaye, Suellentrop, and Sloup, Fog Zone, 56.
36 See Pew Research Center, “Generation Gap in Values, Behaviors: As Marriage and Parenthood Drift Apart, Public Is Concerned about Social Impact,” trends report (July 1, 2007),
37 See W. Bradford Wilcox, “When Marriage Disappears: The Retreat from Marriage in Middle America” in The State of Our Unions 2010 (Charlottesville, VA: National Marriage Project and Institute for American Values, 2010),
38 See Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas, Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005).
39 Mia R. Zolna and Laura D. Lindberg, Unintended Pregnancy: Incidence and Outcomes among Young Adult Unmarried Women in the United States, 2001 and 2008 (New York: Guttmacher Institute, 2012),
40 Kaye, Suellentrop, and Sloup, Fog Zone, 54.
41 Our analysis of Fog Zone Survey, 2009.
42 Our analysis of the National Survey of Family Growth, 1988–2010.
43 See Gladys Martinez, Kimberly Daniels, and Anjani Chandra, “Fertility of Men and Women Aged 15–44 Years in the United States: National Survey of Family Growth, 2006–2010,” national health statistics report 51 (April 12, 2012), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,