Duane Brayboy, "AfroDad" via flickr
Ciara Vesey is an enthusiastic and newly minted lawyer in Iowa who has no plans on getting married anytime soon, thank you very much.
"It just comes down to time," she says. "I don't have the time to get to know someone for a year. Then get engaged. It's a 3-year process. I have to build my career."
Vesey, 26, comes from a large family. Her parents have been married for more than 30 years. Ditto her grandparents. Her dad is even a pastor, and preaches the importance of marriage from the pulpit. Her three older brothers (ages 37, 36 and 35) all went to college and got married right after graduation.
But she and her four younger siblings are different. While they also went to college, none of them are married. "Obviously some kind of shift is going on here," Vesey said.
It's a dramatic shift that is changing the makeup of families across the country. Americans are less likely to marry today than at any time over the past four decades, according to the 2012 State of our Unions report from the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. The annual number of new marriages per 1,000 unmarried adult women declined more than 50 percent from 1970 to 2010. The total number of marriages dropped from 2.45 million in 1990 to 2.11 million in 2010.
Often, the trends seem contradictory. In a poll by the Pew Research Center, for example, 44 percent of millennials say the "institution of marriage is becoming obsolete," yet 70 percent of millennials who are single say they eventually want to get married.
These trends have far-reaching implications affecting the economic and personal well-being of whole classes and segments of society. A study by sociologist Daniel T. Lichter (now at Cornell University) found that for the few unwed mothers who do eventually get and stay married, marriage confers large economic benefits.
Studies show there may be a relationship between marriage and how much people earn, how well their children do in school, their health and even their happiness. For example, 2010 Census data shows that more than 27 percent of children from single-parent families live in poverty, while the percentage of married couple families that live in poverty is just 6.2 percent.
"Marriage is doing reasonably well among Americans who have a college degree and a decent income," says W. Bradford Wilcox, associate professor of sociology and director of the National Marriage Project. "Marriage is in a marked retreat among Americans who don't have a college degree and don't have a strong economic foundation."
Capstone or launching pad?
Wilcox says economics plays a big part in when people get married. "Today, people look at marriage as something to do after all their major ducks are in a row," he says.
This means education, a steady job and even maturity and experience.
But the experiences many young people have today include difficulty finding stable employment.
"Forty or 50 years ago," Wilcox says, "marriage was seen as the launching pad for adulthood. Now people look to marriage as a capstone."
Add to this "capstone" ideal another ideal. "Our public language talks about marriage as something where you find your 'soul mate,'" Wilcox says.
Alan J. Hawkins, a professor of family life at BYU and author of "The Forever Initiative," says that in many ways, the newer generation has more respect and admiration for the institution of marriage and a good healthy relationship than his own generation had three or four decades ago.
"They have this tremendous aspiration that what they want is a healthy, stable, until-death-do-us-part relationship," he says. "Unfortunately, many believe that relationship is beyond their circumstances. They go about family-making without the support the institution of marriage provides. They esteem the institution from outside the institution."
In other words, they believe there will perhaps be a perfect relationship someday, Hawkins says. Meanwhile, these millions of Americans live in imperfect and unmarried relationships.
Joel Kotkin, distinguished presidential fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., also says the economy is having a big impact on marriage. "People are putting off marriage," he says. "The same thing happens with having kids. They put it off and then it is too late."
People put off marriage, and that becomes a way of life and part of who they are.
Kotkin says he understands why some people don't want to get married too early or have kids too soon. "But if you keep putting if off, it becomes harder and harder," he says. "If you have people working as free interns at age 28, you can't imagine those people are planning on getting married and have kids."
As fewer children are born, an imbalance will grow between the numbers of the elderly and retired and working Americans. With fewer intact families comes more dependence upon state programs instead of relatives, Kotkin says.
Vesey, the Iowa lawyer, is pragmatic about her situation. She had a child 8 years ago while still in high school, but says she's fortunate to have a lot of help and support from her family in raising her daughter. She also says the father is involved, which helps.
When she does go on dates, she says she doesn't immediately volunteer that she has a child. "I watch them," she says, "and try to get a sense if they are comfortable with kids."
She says younger men do not talk about getting married. They talk about jobs, money and travel.
"They may say they wanted a family," she says, "but you never hear the 'm' word. Marriage is kind of like a swear word if you brought it up. Nobody has the values of building together or being a team."
The crucial thing to understand about marriage trends is that marriage is being disconnected from childbearing and child rearing, says Kay S. Hymowitz, William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. "We are more focused on two adults in a love relationship, and we are less and less focused on family formation."
For women as a whole, the median age for a first birth was 22.6 years old in 1980, The National Center for Family and Marriage Research reported in 2012. "Knot Yet," a new report sponsored by the National Marriage Project, says the median age for a first birth is now 14 percent higher at 25.7 years old.
At the same time, the median age for a first marriage is 26.5 years old, compared to in 22 years old 1980 — a 20 percent increase.
This "crossover" now puts the baby in the baby carriage before the marriage. According to the 2010 June Current Population Survey, 44 percent of 25-year-old women have had a baby. Only 38 percent have married.
There is no crossover, however, among women with college educations. They continue to put marriage before childbearing.
There are two explanations for why childbearing is no longer dependent upon marriage, Hymowitz says.
One explanation, favored by more left-leaning people, is that in today's economy, less-educated men can't find stable employment, and so they delay marriage. In the past, because women were more dependent upon men for income, they would delay having children until they could marry a man with a good job. But now, because women are more likely to work than they were a generation ago (in 1950, women made up 29.6 percent of the workforce; by 2000, they were 46.6 percent of the workforce), women do not need men to support them.
The other theory is that there has been a cultural shift — a simple change in understanding what marriage is that's uncoupled from the expectation that childbearing is part of the equation. While 45 percent of adults age 30 and older think that more unmarried couples raising children is a bad thing for society and 71 percent think single motherhood is bad for society, only 34 percent of millennials feel that way about unmarried couples and only 63 percent about single motherhood, according to the Pew Research Center.
"If you ask people these days if being a single mother is a problem, you see an increasing number of people who say no," Hymowitz says. "Single motherhood is a new norm."
Wilcox says a good measure of the health of marriage in a society is the number of children being born to unmarried women. A Child Trends research brief found that the percentage of births to unmarried women rose from 11 percent in 1970 to 41 percent in 2009.
That increase is even greater for women ages 20 to 24. In 1970 only 9 percent had children outside of marriage. By 1990 it was 37 percent, and by 2009 it was 62 percent. And these births are not just first-time births; 59 percent were second births or more.
Wilcox thinks, however, that the percentage of births outside of marriage may have reached a ceiling.
"People are going to realize that, in a very cruel economic environment, which we have, being with somebody else and being in the familial unit has its advantages, as has always been the case," Kotkin says.
The Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, a research center at the University of Virginia that studies cultural change, found that 64 percent of Americans think the quality of family life has declined since the time they were growing up. Only 8 percent think it is better. And 80 percent of those who see a "strong decline" in families also see a "strong decline" in moral and ethical standards.
"I know one social conservative who said we have to go back to the '50s," Kotkin says. "It's not going to happen. It's just not. It can't happen. History doesn't go that way."
Instead, Kotkin says other arguments can be made, such as the simple idea that if people live in intact, stable family environments, they will be better off. "You can make a very strong case that people who are married and have kids feel more fulfilled and better about themselves," Kotkin says.
Hawkins says the message is that marriage is more than just a private choice.
"It is a public good," he says. "Even if people are not 'married,' stable healthy relationships are good for children."
The "Knot Yet" report looked at the benefits and costs of delaying marriage. "Children born outside of marriage — including to co-habiting couples — are much more likely to experience family instability, school failure and emotional problems," the report, co-sponsored by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy and the Relate Institute, says. "In fact, children born to co-habiting couples are three times more likely to see their parents break up, compared to children born to married parents."
Turning the tide
Kotkin predicts that many people who chose not to have children will eventually want them. "How do they feel when they get into their 70s and 80s?" Kotkin says.
Recently, Kotkin and his youngest daughter visited his 90-year-old mother.
"Who is going to visit a 90-year-old woman if they are not related to them?" he asks. "Are you going to pay 'Julia' to do it?"
Julia was a fictional woman used in a campaign advertisement by President Barack Obama. The ad showed how the government helps people from cradle to grave. At every step in her life, Julia's life was made easier and more fulfilling by government programs.
Wilcox says many people think society can accommodate the retreat from marriage by providing a basic economic floor for single parents with children — giving food, housing and that sort of thing.
"All these things would be helpful," Wilcox says, "but it doesn't recognize what marriage provides above and beyond economics."
Some of the benefits of marriage that he says cannot be replaced by economic-based government programs are found in the National Marriage Project's report "Why Marriage Matters." The report lists multiple conclusions from social science studies on the benefits of marriage. Children in a co-habiting household are more likely to be victims of physical, sexual or emotional abuse than children in both intact, married families and single-parent families.
Family instability is linked to more school failure, problems with behavior and drugs. Marriage is associated with longer life, better health, less depression among mothers and less crime, the report says.
Kotkin says to simply look pragmatically at the results of children from a married home and compare them to children from home without marriage. Or, show how educated people get married much more than people who are not educated.
"This is what people do who are succeeding," Kotkin says. "Marriage is more fair to children and it is more beneficial to society."
Society shifts, Kotkin says. Sometimes it puts down the individual. Other times, the ultra individualist point of view reigns supreme. "Hopefully people will say, 'Hey, we got to go back to something, not back to the 50s, but something that has a little more value in marriage and family,'" Kotkin says.
"A big problem for those of us who have been following these trends is it isn't possible to get attention to what we see as the major problem: The decline of stable families among less educated Americans," says Hymowitz. "The media focus was so much on the gay marriage issue. Maybe we can now focus more on this issue, which affects a much, much larger percentage of Americans."
A pedestal too high
Meanwhile, an idealized vision of marriage remains a goal for many unmarried Americans. "Many put marriage high upon a pedestal," Hawkins, at BYU, says. "But they put it so high you can worship it rather than live it. That is a problem."
Vesey values marriage, but says if it isn't genuine or sincere she doesn't want it. She also says she knows it is better for children. "Ideally, I believe in a two parent household," she says. "I don't know how I would have turned out without both my mom and my dad. I'm not sure. But I'm an amazing individual because of them."