The Great Crossover

According to popular images, lots of twentysomethings will be meeting friends or dates for sushi in urban restaurants tonight after a day consulting with bosses and co-workers from their cubicles, or, if they’re especially fortunate, from the sofas and desks of their open-plan tech-office spaces. And the fact is a lot of young adults are parlaying the twenties into a time of self-improvement: going to grad school, establishing a career track, and achieving some degree of financial independence while enjoying the recreational offerings of today’s consumer economy. But, contra the popular media, many twentysomething women and men continue to do what twentysomethings have always and everywhere done: they are becoming mothers and fathers. They’re just doing it without a ring.

Let’s take a more careful look at Figure 9 (Figure I from the Summary). When we track trends in women’s age at first marriage alongside the age of their first childbearing, we find that after rising on more or less parallel tracks throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, the age at marriage continued on its steep incline, eventually reaching today’s record highs. The age at first birth, while continuing to rise, took a more leisurely path upwards. Around the late 1980s, the two trends crossed one another. Taken as a statistical whole, American women had begun having children before they were getting married.

Figure9-a

But the more detailed Figure 10 shows that this inversion for American women as a whole hides a very large—and very recent—education and class divide. (Patterns of childbearing and marriage also vary by race and ethnicity,17 and we realize these trends matter deeply, but we focus in this report on the socioeconomic trends associated with contemporary marriage and childbearing trends.) The two green lines depict the trends for college-educated women. Notice that their age at marriage and age at first birth have risen sharply, but in tandem—there is no crossover for them. In other words, college grads continue to marry a few years before they have children, as they always have; only 12 percent of first births to them are out of wedlock. The general pattern for the poorest population also hasn’t changed much in recent years. In fact, high-school dropouts had already experienced the crossover decades earlier. They have been having children at a young age and outside of marriage since before 1970. What is changing for them, as you can see from the blue lines, is the gap between children and marriage, as their age at marriage continues to rise. As of 2010, they were marrying on average at a little over twenty-five, yet they continued the trend of a first child before their twenty-first birthday. Now, 83 percent of firstborn children for high-school dropouts are born outside of marriage.

Figure10

Now look at the red lines tracking those women with a high-school degree and maybe some college: Middle American women. As of 1970, this group was marrying young—at twenty-one—and having their first child shortly after, at twenty-two. Over the next four decades, the age at which they became wives climbed steadily and steeply. The age at which they became mothers, however, was taking a different journey. It rose until 1990 to 24.3, right in sync with the age of marriage. And then it stopped. By the early 2000s, Middle American women were having children before they were marrying. Since then, the age gap between the two events has continued to widen, and now 58 percent of their firstborn children are born out of wedlock.18

Figure11

Many people continue to think of “unwed mothers” as more or less synonymous with “teen pregnancy,” but these numbers show that it’s well past time to retire that idea, particularly when we consider all births rather than just first births. Think of the Great Crossover this way: it marks the moment at which unmarried motherhood moved from the domain of our poorest populations to become the norm for America’s large and already flailing middle class. Today, only 23 percent of all unmarried births are to teenagers. Sixty percent are to women in their twenties.19 As Figure 11 indicates, in 1970, only about 6 percent of births to Middle American women in their twenties were to unmarried mothers; by 2010, it had risen to 52 percent—a stunning increase. (Overall, 47 percent of twentysomething births are out of wedlock.) Think of the Great Crossover this way: it marks the moment at which unmarried motherhood moved from the domain of our poorest populations to become the norm for America’s large and already flailing middle class.

17 Thirty-seven percent of first births to white women are out of wedlock, compared to 64 percent of Hispanic first births, 80 percent of African American first births, and 8 percent of Asian American first births, according to the 2010 National Vital Statistics Birth Datafiles. This gap narrows when controlling for education, though does not disappear.  For example, among women without a college degree, the percent having their first birth out of wedlock is 55 percent for white women, 69 percent for Hispanic women, and 87 percent for African American women.
18 Note that 68 percent of first births to women with just a high-school degree are out of wedlock, compared to 49 percent of first births to women with some college education (but not a bachelor’s degree), according to the 2010 National Vital Statistics Birth Datafiles.
19 See Stephanie J. Ventura, “Changing Patterns of Nonmarital Childbearing in the United States,” data brief 18 (May 2009), National Center for Health Statistics, www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db18.htm.