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Alex Goodlett, Deseret News
Stephanie and Adam Benton sit with their kids Wade and Pippa at their home in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, April 26, 2017.

SALT LAKE CITY — Marriage isn't dead, it's just getting old(er).

That's according to a new report by the U.S. Census Bureau that finds most Americans will eventually marry. But while 80 percent of Americans were married by age 30 in 1970, that same share hasn't tied the knot until age 45 today.

The report, "The Changing Economics and Demographics of Young Adulthood from 1975 to 2016," finds the milestones to adulthood are changing.

Stephanie and Adam Benton sit with their kids Wade and Pippa at their home in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, April 26, 2017. | Alex Goodlett, Deseret News

Author Jonathan Vespa, a Census Bureau demographer, analyzed four: marrying, having kids, working and living on one's own. He found that young adults today and those 40 years ago are quite different in terms of their family life, education, economics and even living arrangements. And their priorities have shifted as well.

Young adults for this report are ages 18 to 34.

Educational and economic accomplishments now outrank marriage and parenthood as "extremely important milestones of adulthood," the report says. More than half of those surveyed said marriage or having kids are "not very important" to becoming an adult.

College-graduate couples are the exception to a trend that includes a changed order of life events — living together and having kids often precedes a wedding ceremony. Those with four-year degrees typically follow the traditional trajectory of getting married before they start a family.

Overall, it's marriage delayed, not foregone, said Nicholas Wolfinger, professor of family and consumer studies and adjunct professor of sociology at the University of Utah.

"We often hear that marriage is doomed — the common expression is 'the retreat from marriage.' A much more important point is that well over 80 percent of us will still marry in our lifetime; it's just that we're doing it much later than we used to," Wolfinger said.

"We are certainly spending less of our adult lives in marriage, partly because we are marrying later and also because of divorce. But it's important to remind everybody that the vast majority of us will get married," he added.

Still the goal

Unmarried adults in the United States "overwhelmingly" report that they want to marry. The "when" of marriage has become "a huge social class divide," Wolfinger said.

In the early 1970s, couples married and divorced at about the same rate, whether they'd gone to college or not.

"Now marriage is something the college-educated enjoy" before starting families, said Wolfinger, referring to what he calls "stunning data" showing that 59 percent of adults who have four-year college degrees are married, compared with 30 percent without degrees. "It's just a huge difference."'

Age 25 was picked as the ideal age to marry by most in Vespa's report, but just one-fourth of those surveyed were actually married by then. In 1995, nearly 6 in 10 women married by that age, a number that dropped to 44 percent in 2010. The number married by age 40, though, is relatively flat over time, hovering around 85 percent.

But here's a kicker: Young men and women are not putting off living with romantic partners.

"Since the 1980s, the age when people start their first co-residential relationship has stayed consistently around 22, whereas the age when they first marry has risen from 22 to 27 for women. … They are trading marriage for cohabitation," the report says.

They often have children in those relationships. Close to 40 percent of all births in the United States are to unmarried women. It's a number that Wolfinger said "seems to have plateaued; it was slightly higher a couple of years ago." He adds that "40 percent is still a huge number by any standards."

Educated and traditional

Stephanie and Adam Benton, of Salt Lake City, somehow managed to attend college at BYU without ever meeting each other, even graduating on the same day, which they laugh about now that they're married and raising a family.

Stephanie and Adam Benton sit with their kids Wade and Pippa at their home in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, April 26, 2017. | Alex Goodlett, Deseret News

After graduation, she moved to Washington, D.C., where she worked on the staff of various members of Congress. He went to graduate school in New York City to earn an MBA. They met through mutual friends and dated long distance for a while.

After they married, she moved to New York while he finished his last semester of graduate school. Then they moved to Utah, where he started a business with his family, and she worked on a political campaign and then for a public relations firm until the birth of her first child, Wade, who will soon be 3. Last fall, they had a daughter, Pippa. Stephanie Benton is now 33, her husband 34.

The order of their lives is traditional. But it is the norm now only in their college-educated demographic.

"This is kind of what I hoped would happen," Stephanie Benton said. "And I have heard it's like a formula for success."

Juliana Masters, of Plain City, is another college-educated wife and mother who followed a fairly traditional path, with some variation from the Bentons.

Brian and Juliana Masters with four of their five children. From left: Zachary, Aliyah, Briana and Jakson. | Family photo

Masters said her religious beliefs as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints drove the order in which she's become a wife and mother.

"I always planned on getting married before I had kids. … I always hoped I would get a degree, but marriage was a high priority on my list," she said.

Masters, now 44, went on a mission for her church and earned two college degrees before she met and married Brian Masters. When they met, he was 31 and had been divorced; she was 29. They dated for three years before they wed in 2005. They have five kids, ranging in age from 4 to 23.

Close to finishing college, he opted to work full-time.

"He's an entrepreneur and a guy who can learn anything," she said.

Young and different

The report, which is a point-in-time comparison between 1975 and 2012-16, not a trend analysis, finds education is the highest-ranked of the four indicators of adulthood, with more than 60 percent saying it's an extremely important step to becoming an adult.

Vespa writes that the emphasis on going to college "underlies rising student debt that many young people carry," with 41 percent of young families shouldering student debt in 2013, compared with 17 percent in 1989. The amounts they owe are larger, too.

Economic security came in second, with half believing a full-time job and the ability to financially support a family are "extremely important." Just one-fourth said moving out of one's parents' home is an important step. One-third of young adults live with their parents, the most common living arrangement in the age group.

As recently as 2005, most young adults lived in their own households, and in 35 states that was the most common living arrangement. Over the past 10 years, that scenario has dwindled to just six states. In all, an estimated 24 million young adults live in their parents' home.

Of those who do live at home, one-fourth are "idle," meaning they don't work and they don't go to school.

"Among other characteristics, these young adults are more likely to have a child, so they may be caring for family, and over one-quarter have a disability of some kind," the report says.

Vespa emphasized that most young adults living with their folks either work or attend school.

The report also notes that while young women are making gains in employment and wages, "more young men are falling to the bottom of the income ladder." Forty years ago, three-fourths of men 25 to 34 had incomes of at least $30,000 a year (in 2015 dollars), compared with 59 percent in 2016.

The report is based on data from the Census Bureau's American Community Survey and the Current Population Survey. The portion that measures attitudes comes from the National Science Foundation's General Social Survey.

Email: lois@deseretnews.com

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