New trend: Babies born before marriage pose dramatic challenges to future of families

Published: Thursday, March 14 2013 6:35 p.m. MDT

Unmarried couples are three times as likely to break up by a child’s fifth birthday as those who are married, she said. That often means absent fathers, higher risk of school failure, greater emotional turmoil, more early pregnancy themselves.

It is not an exercise in finger wagging to point out the disparity between the two marital states, Hymowitz emphasized. Marriage impacts “the lives that children can expect to have.” The solution lies in part with creating “cultural consensus” that change is needed.

While the 20s are often now viewed as a time to play and get an education and try out relationships, that overlooks that the first child is coming along, too,” said Wilcox, who added that “marriage is an institution that has some real value for the twenty-something.”

For example, the researchers looked at the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health and found single men in their 20s are much more likely to be dissatisfied, to drink heavily and to be depressed, when compared to married peers.

Don't wait forever

The data shows, said Carroll, that “when it comes to determining the right time to get married, older is not necessarily better.” Teenagers are clearly too young, but with young adults in the early to mid-20s, “we should be focusing more on the quality of the relationships they’re establishing than on how old they are."

The age benefits of not marrying as teens diminishes when moving through the 20s. Risks are relatively comparable to older couples. Those in their late 20s and beyond “don’t appear to be any happier or to have better marriages.” One noted study of five data sets found the greatest likelihood of an intact marriage of highest quality was among those who marry between 22 and 25.

“What I think has happened is we are very aware of the risks of teenage marriage.” So people have interpreted that to mean older is always better — “that if 22 is better than 18, 26 is better than 22 and 30 is better than 26,” Carroll said. It doesn’t hold up, and at those points, age is not the primary issue in what will blow up a marriage.

“It is much more about life choices, values, level of personal responsibility, etc.,” Carroll said. "We would be much better off helping our young people understand what makes up healthy relationships than just setting up an arbitrary age. That’s what I think the report is trying to say. … And we should probably be more supportive of twenty-something marriages when the relationship is of high quality.”

As shifting trends create two stories, they also have twin drivers: economics and culture. With persistent economic downturns, many young Americans cannot find jobs that give them a middle-class lifestyle unless and sometimes even if they get an education. Financial stability is delayed and many are waiting for that before launching into married life. Marriage used to be the launching pad.

Seeking solutions

The report said there are economic, educational and cultural questions the United States needs to tackle. Surveys find most young adults want to marry one day. That dream has to be reachable across socio-economic status. The researchers call for realigning marriage and parenthood and stabilizing family life for all children, regardless of parental education levels.

They point, for example, to programs in Austria, Germany and the United Kingdom that use vocational training, apprenticeships and placements to help those who are not college-educated earn livable wages. "Knot Yet" said public acknowledgement of the problems is needed.

“Both for their own sake and for the sake of potential partners, twenty-somethings should see their romantic relationships as opportunities to grow in the virtues of love and commitment,” the report said.

“We think this is a terribly important issue,” said Hymowitz. People may think it’s a case of “wagging our fingers, but we really are talking about problems of future generations.”

Those problems, she added, are complicated and interconnected.

EMAIL: lois@desnews.com, Twitter: Loisco

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