The Tipping Point When Marriage and Children Is No Longer a Package Deal

by Barbara Ray

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Middle-American women are driving trends in delayed marriage but not kids.

Something is happening. Somewhere around 2000, the country quietly underwent a profound shift: women, driven largely by “middle-American”* women, began putting the baby carriage before marriage.

In fact, for women on the whole, the age of first birth is now 25.7 while the age at first marriage is 26.5.

Let that sink in a moment.

And here’s another startling fact: one in two mothers in America is now having a baby first and marrying later, if at all.

One in two mothers in America is now having a baby first and marrying later, if at all.

What this “baby before marriage” means for young adults, and the country as a whole, is the focus of the National Marriage Project’s new study, “Knot Yet: The Benefits and Costs of Delayed Marriage in America.”

As Kay Hymowitz, one of the authors of this report has said in the past, the most significant shift in American relationship habits is “not the widespread rejection of marriage; it’s not even the record number of thirtysomething brides and grooms. It’s the abandonment of the idea that marriage has anything to do with children.” Her March 15 essay in the Wall Street Journal expands on this point.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be talking about the report here. The report’s authors, Kay Hymowitz, Brad Wilcox, and other scholars at the National Marriage Project, Relate Institute, and the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, will be weighing in on the key findings and other surprising results. I’ll be filling in with posts as well, taking a look at the bigger picture. So check in daily, or better yet sign up for our RSS or EMAIL alerts for updates.

But back to the “great crossover,” as we call this moment when the age at first birth dipped below the age at first marriage in 2000. How did it happen, and why?

It happened for a lot of reasons, including the larger trend in a slower path into adulthood. Not too long ago a young person had left home, finished school,  found a job, married, and had kids –often in that order—by age 25. Today, it’s more like 35, and rarely in that order. Marriage is one of those milestones, and it too has been delayed.

This crossover also happened because “good” jobs for men have largely disappeared while wages for the working class have been heading south since the 1970s, making marriage seem out of the question.

It also happened because we’ve been thinking differently about marriage.  Ask someone from the Millennial generation today about marriage and kids and he or she will likely tell you that it’s ok to have a baby and not marry (77% of women age 18-29 agreed). And it’s not just young adults. Fully two-thirds of all Americans say that the main purpose of marriage is about personal fulfillment, not for raising kids. In other words, marriage and children are no longer a package deal.

What’s so striking in many respects is this great crossover’s stealth approach. One would never know from watching movies or television that, for example, by age 30, two-thirds of women have had a baby—and the majority of those are unmarried when they do.

On a recent episode of “Girls” on HBO, for example, Hannah was in Brooklyn brooding over a recent breakup and suffering the return of OCD. Her friend and sometimes roommate Marnie was suffering existential angst over the fact that life isn’t fair, and Jess, recently divorced from a fling-like marriage, had fled once again. Likewise, the soon-to-be cancelled show “Happy Endings” follows a group of young adults in Chicago. Only one couple is married and no one has kids. The list goes on. (A new show, How to Live with Your Parents (for the rest of your life), does have the main character showing up on mom and dad’s doorstep, child in tow, so maybe the tide is beginning to turn.)

While I don’t expect Hollywood to give us real life—we want escape after all—it does shape the conversations we have. It leaves us with the impression that today’s young twenty-something is either a hard-charging woman on her way to the top (think Hannah Rosin’s “The End of Men”) or an angsty Brooklyn hipster with a degree in creative writing from Smith struggling to grow up.

But the majority of women in America are not Hannah and her friends. The majority do not have a college degree. Only about three in ten Americans aged 25 and older have a four-college degree. The majority are like my niece Christa, who in her mid-30s has a 12-year-old son whom she raised on her own until she married a few years ago. Christa lives in the middle of the country in a small city that once had a thriving cement industry and other factories. Christa didn’t go to college, and she keeps trying to land a better job. She was working at Victoria’s Secret until she got a better job working nights as an aide in a nursing home. However, juggling life with a new husband, a 12-year-old, and now a 2-year-old, she is anxious to find something better with daytime hours.

So while many women might share Hannah’s confusion over men and relationships, they don’t have the luxury of dwelling on it too long. They have a baby to take care of. Hannah and her peers with college degrees are delaying marriage, but they’re also delaying children. Not so for Middle American women. They’re delaying marriage, but they’re opting to have children in the meantime. To give you a sense of this enormous shift among this group: in 1970, only 12% of births to Middle American women in their 20s were to unmarried mothers. By 2010, it was 58%.

We as a country have to start talking about this change. While there are some very positive things about delaying marriage (we’ll talk more about them later in the week), there are also some downsides. And certainly being a single parent is seldom a good thing. While some single moms are amazing, I think we’d be hard-pressed to find one who recommends the path. Sure they love their kids and can’t imagine life without them. But it’s hard enough balancing work and kids with a spouse to share the job. Doing it alone is not for sissies.

Tomorrow we’ll write more about the relationships young women are forging today. Many of these women of course are not doing it completely alone. They’re living with their boyfriends. But as we’ll discuss, those relationships are hardly permanent, nor are they very good for kids.

So check back, and follow us on Twitter (@Marriage Report) to join the conversation.

Here’s a sneak preview of some of the topics we’ll be writing about. Stay tuned!

  • Early marriage isn’t as unusual as we’d think. By age 25, 44% of women have a child and 38% are married.
  • Earlier marriages are often happier marriages (when they last).
  • Marriage (and early marriage in particular) helps men. Men who had married in their 20s had the highest level of personal income. Men who have never married have some of the lowest levels of personal income–lower even than those who married before age 20.

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*In the report, the term Middle-American includes those women who have not finished a four-year college degree but might have some college under their belt and have a high school degree.