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

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

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.

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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Family life in America is growing as distinct as two sides of a coin. Those with college educations often divorce less, earn more and enjoy fairly traditional marriage and stability for kids, a new national report says. Among the less-educated majority, young parents are usually unmarried at the birth of their first child, risking family stability and the baby’s future.

Those with college degrees will likely produce privileged children with predictable opportunities. Delays in marriage age give well-educated women, in particular, and their future children a chance to get ahead. The other, larger group of kids will have to work harder and will have fewer opportunities to move up socially and economically, according to the report released late Thursday, “Knot Yet: The Benefits and Costs of Delayed Marriage in America.”

Both scenarios are undergirded by an unprecedented increase in the average age of first marriage to 26.5 for women and 28.7 for men, according to the report, just released by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and the RELATE Institute. While there's a tendency to think that maturity and stability will increase with age, the report says the marriage delay is not a good thing.

The shift has created what’s being called a “Great Crossover,” where the average age of a first birth is actually younger than average age of marriage. More than half of moms younger than 30 have their first child without marrying — a sequence long entrenched among disadvantaged Americans that is now moving through “Middle America” — the 54 percent of Americans who graduated from high school and maybe even got some college, though not degrees.

The report says 44 percent of women have given birth by the time they reach age 25, while 38 percent have wed. Overall, 48 percent of first births occur outside of marriage.

There are other distinct journeys buried in the tale of delayed marriage, said Kay Hymowitz, William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. “It is working out very well indeed for college-educated men and women, particularly women,” because they tend to graduate and then start families. They typically have higher household income and probably also marry higher-achieving men.

Privileged Americans are using their 20s to accumulate experience and financial footing, said Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project. Others are entering relationships that put them at risk. Men without degrees are less likely to have stable jobs, to be attractive as husbands or see themselves in that role, and to embrace the responsibilities of relationships and marriage.

But as co-author Jason S. Carroll, associate director of the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University and a senior fellow at the RELATE Institute, points out, young adults are engaging in sexual activity at about the same age they always did. Now, though, that’s before typical marriage. So babies are born to single moms or couples who live together.

“What we see happening in America is not simply a delay of marriage and having children, but a resequencing of these two life transitions,” Carroll said.

Cohabiting couples are twice as likely to break up, compared to married couples, said Wilcox. “Marriage is an institution that is surrounded by legal, religious and cultural meanings that people tend to take more seriously.”

Bad news for some

For the bulk of women, “it’s not working out as well,” Hymowitz said. “The non-marital birth rate we are used to seeing among the disadvantaged population is trickling to Middle Americans. The evidence is pretty convincing that children suffer when their parents’ lives are unstable.”

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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